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A Latina scientist co-created a new Covid vaccine. She's nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize

María Elena Bottazzi doesn't forget where she comes from. Her face softens as she, in the midst of complex scientific terms, speaks of Honduras as if she had left Tegucigalpa, its capital, yesterday.

“It never crossed my mind to look for a job at a multinational" company, she said with a broad smile in a video interview with Noticias Telemundo. "I am Central American and doing nonprofit projects is my way of giving back a little of what Honduras has given me.”

Together with Dr. Peter Hotez, Bottazzi, 56, a microbiologist, led the team from the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development that created the Corbevax vaccine for Covid-19, a patent-free drug that last month already received emergency authorization for use in India.

“Peter and I aspire to benefit people, which is why we created a vaccine for the poorest communities in the world. The team that we have built shares the same interest in promoting public health and, obviously, learning at the same time,” she said.

Corbevax is based on recombinant protein, a traditional technology that has been used for decades in well-established drugs such as hepatitis B and pertussis vaccines. This vaccine uses a careful amount of virus proteins in order to activate the body’s immune response, but without making patients sick.

To gain approval in India, two Phase III clinical trials were conducted at 33 research centers with more than 3,000 participants, ages 18 to 80. The tests determined that Corbevax was safe and well tolerated. The company said the vaccine was more than 90 percent effective against the original strain of Covid and more than 80 percent effective against the delta variant.

“It’s a much cheaper process than the messenger RNA technology that Pfizer or Moderna used. We chose the most scalable, reproducible and stable method with a yeast cell that ferments and coded it to produce these proteins," Bottazzi said. "That means you don’t have any animal derivatives, everything is synthetic. In addition, anyone can replicate it and collaborate with us."

Last week, Bottazzi received a call from Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Texas, which she said turned out to be one of the great surprises of her life. Fletcher informed her that she had nominated Bottazzi and Hotez for the Nobel Peace Prize.

“The truth is that I was shocked, speechless. But we are very excited and grateful, because the simple fact that they have thought of us means that we are already winners," the scientist said, speaking with emotion.

Strategies to immunize the world’s population against Covid are moving slowly: About 59 percent of the world’s population has received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to Our World in Data, an Oxford University initiative that analyzes government reports globally.

However, the most worrying figure is that less than 9 percent of residents in low-income countries have received a dose.

The inequality in the distribution of vaccines has caused great indignation among activist groups, political movements and high-ranking officials of the World Health Organization.

While science has given us hope in the form of vaccines, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in December, "there is no doubt that the inequality in their distribution has caused many deaths."

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Bottazzi and her team decided to use the knowledge they had cultivated during decades of research to develop a drug that would be “free for everyone,” as she often says.

“Everyone talks about equity, but nobody does anything. That is why we created Corbevax, although we are a small team and it took us longer than the large laboratories," she said. "But we knew that it would not be enough with the projects of the multinationals, if we take into account the first and second doses, plus booster and pediatric doses, we are still missing 9,000 million doses,” she added.

For several years, Bottazzi and her team focused on creating vaccines against largely neglected diseases such as schistosomiasis (intestinal parasites) and Chagas' disease.

More than a decade ago, they began to investigate coronaviruses, when no one imagined the emergence of the pandemic that has disrupted health systems across the world. The team began developing vaccines for coronaviruses such as severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, until the funds they raised ran out.

“Our goal has always been to develop and manufacture cheap, durable vaccines to contribute to global health,” Bottazzi said.

When Covid began to spread around the world, researchers already knew of the technological advances that could help generate a drug to combat the novel coronavirus. But due to scarce public and private funding (among its private donors, a brand of vodka stands out; it brought the team a million dollars), it took them longer to manufacture the vaccine.

“We are looking for this concept of making transparent alliances, without patents, with partners who have the same outlook as we do, even if that is difficult and takes us a little longer," Bottazzi said. "Then Biological E, a large vaccine manufacturer in India, became interested, which promoted the development and we managed to get the emergency authorization in India. Now we are in talks with other countries such as Indonesia and Bangladesh."

As with many scientific feats, the creation of Corbevax is the product of past research that, at the time, didn't receive the attention and support it needed to further refine the processes and methods which were crucial to ultimately driving the drug forward.

Bottazzi warns that after the pandemic emergency is over, "we must continue investing in science, we have to be prepared for the emergence of other diseases."

Below, she answered several questions about the new vaccine she helped create.

What advantages does Corbevax offer, compared to other vaccines on the market?

The first thing is that its development is free, any government or company can contact us and we will give them the starter kit to start manufacturing. Our doses cost between $2 and $3, compared to the others. In recent trials, it’s over 80 percent effective with variants like beta and delta, and we’re looking into how it reacts with omicron.

María Elena Bottazzi no olvida de dónde viene. Su rostro se suaviza cuando, en medio de términos científicos complejos, habla de Honduras como si hubiera salido de Tegucigalpa, su capital, ayer.

"Nunca se me pasó por la cabeza buscar trabajo en una empresa multinacional", dijo con una amplia sonrisa en una entrevista en vídeo con Noticias Telemundo. "Soy centroamericano y hacer proyectos sin ánimo de lucro es mi forma de devolver un poco de lo que Honduras me ha dado".

Junto con el Dr. Peter Hotez, Bottazzi, de 56 años, microbiólogo, dirigió el equipo del Centro para el Desarrollo de Vacunas del Hospital Infantil de Texas que creó la vacuna Corbevax para Covid-19, un medicamento libre de patentes que el mes pasado ya recibió autorización de emergencia para su uso en la India.

"Peter y yo aspiramos a beneficiar a la gente, por lo que creamos una vacuna para las comunidades más pobres del mundo. El equipo que hemos creado comparte el mismo interés en promover la salud pública y, obviamente, en aprender al mismo tiempo", dijo.

Corbevax se basa en proteínas recombinantes, una tecnología tradicional que se ha utilizado durante décadas en medicamentos bien establecidos como las vacunas contra la hepatitis B y la tos ferina. Esta vacuna utiliza una cantidad cuidadosa de proteínas virales para activar la respuesta inmunitaria del cuerpo, pero sin enfermar a los pacientes.

Para obtener la aprobación en la India, se llevaron a cabo dos ensayos clínicos de fase III en 33 centros de investigación con más de 3000 participantes, de 18 a 80 años. Las pruebas determinaron que Corbevax era seguro y bien tolerado. La compañía dijo que la vacuna era más del 90 por ciento efectiva contra la cepa original de Covid y más del 80 por ciento efectiva contra la variante delta.

“Es un proceso mucho más barato que la tecnología de ARN mensajero que utilizaron Pfizer o Moderna. Elegimos el método más escalable, reproducible y estable con una célula de levadura que fermenta y la codificamos para producir estas proteínas", dijo Bottazzi. "Eso significa que no tienes ningún derivado animal, todo es sintético. Además, cualquiera puede replicarlo y colaborar con nosotros".

Desde el comienzo de la pandemia, Bottazzi y su equipo decidieron utilizar el conocimiento que habían cultivado durante décadas de investigación para desarrollar un medicamento que fuera "gratuito para todos", como ella dice a menudo.

“Todo el mundo habla de equidad, pero nadie hace nada. Es por eso que creamos Corbevax, aunque somos un equipo pequeño y nos llevó más tiempo que los grandes laboratorios", dijo. "Pero sabíamos que no sería suficiente con los proyectos de las multinacionales, si tenemos en cuenta la primera y la segunda dosis, además de las dosis de refuerzo y pediátricas, todavía nos faltan 9.000 millones de dosis", añadió.

Durante varios años, Bottazzi y su equipo se centraron en la creación de vacunas contra enfermedades en gran medida desatendidas como la esquistosomiasis (parásitos intestinales) y la enfermedad de Chagas.

Hace más de una década, comenzaron a investigar los coronavirus, cuando nadie imaginó la aparición de la pandemia que ha perturbado los sistemas de salud en todo el mundo. El equipo comenzó a desarrollar vacunas para coronavirus como el síndrome respiratorio agudo severo, o SARS, y el síndrome respiratorio de Oriente Medio, o MERS, hasta que se agotaron los fondos que recaudaron.

"Nuestro objetivo siempre ha sido desarrollar y fabricar vacunas baratas y duraderas para contribuir a la salud mundial", dijo Bottazzi.

Cuando el Covid comenzó a propagarse por todo el mundo, los investigadores ya conocían los avances tecnológicos que podrían ayudar a generar un medicamento para combatir el nuevo coronavirus. Pero debido a la escasa financiación pública y privada (entre sus donantes privados, destaca una marca de vodka; le trajo al equipo un millón de dólares), les llevó más tiempo fabricar la vacuna.

"Estamos buscando este concepto de hacer alianzas transparentes, sin patentes, con socios que tengan la misma perspectiva que nosotros, incluso si eso es difícil y nos lleva un poco más de tiempo", dijo Bottazzi. "Entonces Biological E, un gran fabricante de vacunas en la India, se interesó, lo que promovió el desarrollo y logramos obtener la autorización de emergencia en la India. Ahora estamos en conversaciones con otros países como Indonesia y Bangladesh".

Al igual que con muchas hazañas científicas, la creación de Corbevax es el producto de investigaciones pasadas que, en ese momento, no recibieron la atención y el apoyo que necesitaba para refinar aún más los procesos y métodos que eran cruciales para impulsar en última instancia el medicamento.

Bottazzi advierte que después de que termine la emergencia pandémica, "debemos seguir invirtiendo en ciencia, tenemos que estar preparados para la aparición de otras enfermedades".

A continuación, respondió a varias preguntas sobre la nueva vacuna que ayudó a crear.

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