María Elena Bottazzi: “I was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for Corbevax”

Of Honduran nationality, the microbiologist scientist Maria Elena Bottazzi developed with his work team the vaccine against covid-19 Corbevax, at Texas Children Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston (United States). Bottazzi is dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at the hospital. This year she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to science with the development of Corbevax, which she does not have a patent on. She currently continues her research to create a universal vaccine against all coronaviruses. From Houston, she spoke with El País.

-How did you get nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize?

-Earlier this year, Congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher called Peter Hotez (fellow scientist) and me via zoom to let us know that she had been given the opportunity to nominate someone for the Nobel Peace Prize and that she had selected for the innovation of our center and our philosophy of developing vaccines without patents, including covid-19, promoting collaborations to advance these types of products. The news was a surprise, because generally when we talk to (government) representatives it is to inform them about what is new in the scientific field, what we are working on and answer their questions. And when he called us we thought it was for something like that, but he talked about the nomination.

-How did you feel and what happened afterwards?

-We feel very proud and happy. As a Latin American and a woman, the nomination is very special, and also very important for the center. When the news came to light, we had a great response, optimistic, positive, from all sides, from Honduras, from other Latin American countries, from Italy and the United States. The news was very well received and shared.

-What is the current situation of Corbevax, how much is being produced and distributed?

-Corbevax is being produced in India by Biological E Ltd. and has a production capacity of up to 100 million doses per month. The Indian government signed a purchase agreement with this company for 300 million doses, of which almost 70 million have already been distributed to the population. There approval was received that Corbevax can also be used as a booster vaccine. On the other hand, the vaccine was approved in Botswana and steps are being taken so that the government can import and distribute it. In addition, we are working with producers from other countries. The vaccine is in the last phase of review by the WHO, we are waiting for the organization to give its approval for global prequalification and authentication.

“Corbevax does not have a patent, we decided to leave our technology open.”

-When you say that you are talking with producers from other countries, which ones are you referring to?

-The biotechnology Biofarma is in phase III of clinical studies in Indonesia. They don’t call it Corvebax, but Bumn. We have also transferred the vaccine technology to a company in Bangladesh. And the ImmunityBio group is making efforts to create infrastructure for the local production of this vaccine in Africa, it is in the evaluation phase.

“Why doesn’t it always bear the Corvebax name?”

-Corvebax is a name given by the Indian company, but each producer can give it a specific name based on their trademark registrations. In any case, in all cases, the technology to produce it is always the one that comes from our laboratory, even if the names of the product are different.

-How do you manage to develop vaccine technology, without the need to patent?

-In the case of covid-19, it is an option that we had, to leave our technology open. We want to not only publish the findings of how the vaccine is being developed, but share it for others to learn.

We can do it because our model is to develop vaccines for poor people and we do not enter the traditional commercial system or the multinationals. They are vaccines created in an academic environment for greater access to public health in countries that do not have economic or commercial power.

-How are they financed and how much did the development of Corbevax cost?

-We have funds and subsidies to advance research with the support of health and philanthropic institutions, mainly in Texas and New York, where there are many millionaire families and companies that want to contribute to science. In this case, we had raised US$7 million to work specifically on coronaviruses and we continue to receive support to continue moving forward.

-There are laboratories, such as Pfizer, that released the patents of their vaccines against covid-19 under some circumstances, what is your opinion?

-Yes, they made dispensation agreements so that the vaccines can be studied and learned, but that lasts as long as they are in emergency use. There are no details of what will happen in the long term. The fact that they want to share knowledge is a positive thing.

-What other vaccines are you developing at the research center in Houston?

-We are advancing in second generations of vaccines for covid, but also for other coronaviruses and strategies to eventually produce prototypes for a universal or broad-spectrum vaccine. This means that it could make a vaccine for all coronaviruses. In tropical medicine, we have various programs at different stages. For Chagas disease, we developed a vaccine that is currently being produced in Mexico. We also have a vaccine against intestinal parasites in phase II. We are advancing little by little.

-After the unequal distribution of vaccines in the world during the pandemic, several countries in the region have proposed to create their own vaccines to have greater autonomy. Do you see it as realistic considering the lack of resources in Latin America?

-Yes, I think it is viable, we can not only be more autonomous in the development of vaccines, but in any type of biological. Increasing research is the first step, because a manufacturing company can be created in the medical area, but it must have the personnel and the knowledge for these issues. That is sorely lacking in our region, but that must be corrected in order to later move on to production. Everything is very hoarded in very specific places in the world and that system destroys our region’s access to the products and inputs to produce them.

-What do you think of the medical research carried out in Uruguay?

-Uruguay has a long history of scientific-medical collaboration with other Latin American countries, such as Brazil, and also with other Europeans, such as France. It has the very important Pasteur Institute, which gives it the opportunity to fill gaps in research and development. I think that Uruguay has a lot of potential to continue establishing very good transnational collaborations, and also to support other countries in the region through Pasteur.

-Have you had any relationship with Uruguayan institutions at some point?

-We have many collaborations with academic institutions and research centers in Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and other countries. With Uruguay we don’t have anything formal, but they have invited us to conferences. We are always interested in collaboration, including Pasteur from Uruguay. It is a matter of defining common objectives, looking at the issue of funds and what capacities need to be coordinated.

“We are always interested in collaboration, including Pasteur from Uruguay.”

-Is the nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in any way impacting the work you are doing?

-It has already had a great impact because it has increased the visibility of our center, they call us to give lectures and classes, they invite us to congresses, we give interviews. Many institutes from different places are interested in knowing how our research and collaboration model works.

-Have they obtained more financing or support since the news of the Nobel Peace Prize nomination spread?

-Millions of dollars did not rain down on us, but obviously it has opened doors for us to apply for new types of proposals and support, and to establish new collaborations with doctors and researchers from all over the world who want to learn.

Moderna sued Pfizer and Biontech

The American company Moderna launched a judicial offensive against Pfizer and BioNTech, accusing them of infringing patents on essential technologies for its messenger RNA vaccine against covid-19. “Moderna is convinced that Pfizer and BioNTech’s Comirnaty Covid-19 vaccine infringes patents filed by Moderna between 2010 and 2016, which cover Moderna’s core messenger RNA technology,” it said in a statement. But the company also wants to maintain control of technologies that can be used in many other contexts, as it uses its platform of messenger RNA-related technologies to develop treatments for influenza, HIV, autoimmune and cardiovascular diseases, and various types of Of cancer.

In response, Pfizer and BioNTech said they were aware of the lawsuit and deny any wrongdoing. “BioNTech’s work is original, and we will vigorously defend ourselves against any allegation of patent infringement,” the company said, stating that it “respects the valid intellectual property rights of others.”

This is not the first lawsuit for patent infringement on innovative messenger RNA technology. Moderna has been sued by the biotech companies Arbutus Biopharma Corporation and Genevant Sciences and BioNTech in Germany for its compatriot CureVac. BioNTech and Pfizer in turn responded to CureVac by taking it to court in the US. AFP

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María Elena Bottazzi: “I was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for Corbevax”