‘I still have a lot of confidence in the Astrazeneca vaccine:’ Doctor

Yahoo Finance’s Alexis Christoforous and Anjalee Khemlani discuss Biological E. Limited’s vaccine development with Dr. Peter Hotez, Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

Video Transcript

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: The world is struggling with vaccine rollouts as supply continues to be limited, with projections showing a fully vaccinated world by 2023. The US is among the most fortunate, with access to three and soon-to-be four options. It's why there is increasing pressure for it to donate doses. Meanwhile, other candidates are still in the works, including one from Baylor College of Medicine's Dr. Peter Hotez, who co-developed a vaccine with India's Biological E. The company recently received a commitment from the US to support manufacturing.

And Dr. Hotez joins us now, along with our health reporter Anjalee Khemlani. Doctor, thanks so much for being with us today. Tell us more about your vaccine, where you are in the process, and how it compares to the vaccines already on the market.

PETER HOTEZ: Yeah, so our coronavirus vaccine group has been together for the last decade. It's was a consortium initially with the New York Blood Center, and the Galveston National Lab, and our group at Texas Children's Center for Vaccine Development at Baylor College of Medicine. It's co-headed by myself and Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, and we've worked together for 20 years.

And we've been developing low-cost vaccines for global health for parasitic and neglected diseases vaccines for many years. And then about a decade ago, we adopted this coronavirus program, and now we have a low-cost COVID-19 vaccine that's being accelerated and scaled to production by Biological E and Hyderabad. And the hope is they have the capacity for 1.2 billion doses.

This is an older technology that uses the same technology as the hepatitis B vaccine that's been around for 40 years. It's microbial fermentation in yeast. And so it's a simple, unfussy, highly protective in non-human primate vaccine that we hope will fill the gaps, because right now Africa and Latin America especially are desperate for COVID-19 vaccines.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Right. And Doctor, we keep hearing that unless the world can really come together and vaccinate most of the people, we're not going to be able to-- to get a handle on this or eradicate the pandemic. But would your vaccine be a two-dose vaccine in the way Moderna and Pfizer is or a one dose in the way J&J is?

PETER HOTEZ: I think ours will almost certainly be a two-dose vaccine, although as I've been pointing out, even the J&J vaccine may need to move to two doses and the mRNA vaccines to three doses as they need to make boosters in order to cover-- cover some of the new variants coming out of South Africa and-- and Brazil. So don't be surprised if we add an extra immunization for each of those vaccines as well.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Dr. Hotez, I know that, of course, the-- the process is still underway, and you're still in clinical trials on this. But with the announcement from the DFC to support Biological E, which is also going to be producing the J&J vaccine, what does that mean for the potential of your vaccine to be delivered more broadly?

PETER HOTEZ: So our partner, Biological E in India, which is one of the world's largest vaccine producers, they produce a lot of the world's vaccines, has gotten support now from CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation, which was launched at Davos a couple of years ago, and now it looks like the Biden administration, as well, is supporting it. So that's really exciting, because they'll need some help.

Remember, this is not a money making vaccine. This is a people's vaccine, low-cost people's vaccine for low and middle-income countries. Possibly it will find use in the US and Europe, as well, because it uses a technology that's been around for 40 years that's been used in children for hepatitis B immunizations. So potentially, it could find use for-- for kids in the US and Europe, as well, down the line.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: I know that there's been a lot of discussion, like Alexis said, about needing to vaccinate the world. And this is something you've focused on for your whole life and your career. And I know that you also produced a book about this, about how we need to tackle pandemics and prepare for them. One of the things we're seeing happen, right, is vaccine nationalism and the idea that some of the wealthier countries have more access and more quickly while other less wealthy countries or places where there aren't manufacturing capacity or don't have access right now. So what are your thoughts on that and sort of how we might be messing up this-- this response?

PETER HOTEZ: Absolutely. I mean, part of the problem is, you know, the two mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are not going to be big players, I think, in the world's low and middle-income countries and Africa and Latin America. Yes, Pfizer-BioNTech, a week or so ago, made the great gesture of providing 230,000 doses through COVAX facility for Rwanda, but look at the scale. I mean, sub-Saharan Africa is 1.1 billion people. If we talk about two immunizations, we're going to need 2 billion doses of vaccines. Where does that come from?

The mRNA vaccine technology is still too new to scale at that level. And so we don't have a lot of options. A hope is that the AstraZeneca vaccine could-- could play a role here. We have to show that it works against the South African variant, which is still uncertain.

So we're hoping our vaccine can come in and help to fill that gap and others as well. But-- but at least if this one comes in, it's pretty straightforward. It only requires simple refrigeration, two doses, and-- and probably around $1.50 a dose. So it could be the least expensive of all the COVID-19 vaccines as well. So it checks a lot of boxes if you're going to think about a vaccine for use in resource-poor settings.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Absolutely. And I'm glad you brought up AstraZeneca, because there's definitely some concern right now. I know that all the regulatory bodies, as well the World Health Organization, has greenlit continued use of it, but there are still some concerns, as well as its performance against the South Africa variant. So it really opens the door, considering that this was supposed to be the vaccine that really was sent to all the middle, low-income countries early on.

They're now left waiting. And we see the entry of players like Russia and China really strongly and some of the African and South American countries. Are you concerned about that? Or what does that really say about our ability right now to really curb this pandemic?

PETER HOTEZ: Well, I still have a lot of confidence in the AstraZeneca vaccine. I think a lot of the European countries were kind of tone deaf to their messages that they sent out. I'm glad the European Medicine Agency's reaffirmed their endorsement and commitment to it. But there's a lot of damage control given the documents that have been put out by the German government and the statements made by France and elsewhere.

So we've got to work on that. And it still may protect against severe disease from-- from COVID-19, but we're waiting for those studies as well. In the meantime, Russia and China are coming in. And that in itself is not a problem. The problem is that they are not working directly with the WHO, the World Health Organization, pre-qualification process and stringent regulatory-- regulatory authorities.

And-- and what they're doing instead in its place is-- is making bilateral agreements with individual countries in a very transactional type of arrangement, which is not productive and has even been given a name called vaccine nationalism, which is the opposite of vaccine diplomacy.

So I hope-- you know, I know the World Health Organization is working hard now with Russia and China to bring them in the fold, get those vaccines pre-qualified, but that-- that's got to be fixed. And I think one of the lessons learned is despite a lot of good faith efforts from the global policymakers to create the COVAX facility for-- for equity in these vaccines, we just don't have the supply of vaccines available. And we're seeing these breakdowns in governance around vaccines that I hope we can correct pretty quickly.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: All right, Dr. Peter Hotez, thanks so much for being with us, and best of luck with the vaccine.