Could Protein-Based Vaccines Help Close The Global Vaccination Gap?

9:57 minutes

a box of over a dozen vaccine vials
Credit: Shutterstock

A new generation of COVID-19 vaccines are being developed and distributed around the world. They’re called recombinant-protein vaccines. But the tech is actually not at all new. In fact, It’s been used to produce hepatitis C and pertussis vaccines for decades. 

These protein-based vaccines have an edge over mRNA vaccines in a few ways. They’re just as effective, cheaper and simpler to manufacture, and easier to distribute. 

So why, two years into the pandemic, have they just started gaining traction? And can recombinant-protein vaccines help close the global coronavirus vaccination gap?

Ira discusses these developments with Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, the co-creator of Corbevax, a patent-free protein-based vaccine, for which she was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She’s also the co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital, and a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine, based in Houston, Texas.

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Segment Guests

Maria Elena Bottazzi

Maria Elena Bottazzi is Associate Dean at the National School of Tropical Medicine and Co-Director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. India is going to vaccinate hundreds of millions of people with a COVID-19 vaccine that costs about $1 a dose, can be stored in a kitchen refrigerator, has no patent restrictions, and is a vaccine you’ve probably never heard of– Corbevax.

Corbevax is not one of your new RNA vaccines. It’s old school, a protein vaccine. These old-style protein-based vaccines have an edge over mRNA vaccines in a few important ways. They’re cheaper and simpler to make and easier to distribute. Could they help close the global COVID vaccination gap?

Joining me now is Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, the co-creator of Corbevax, for which she was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She’s also the co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital and a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine, based in Houston. Baylor College has licensed the vaccine to India. Dr. Bottazzi, welcome back to Science Friday.


IRA FLATOW: First of all, congratulations on being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Let’s start off with the basics. How does a protein-based vaccine work?

MARIA ELENA BOTTAZZI: So the bottom line is that for our immune system to really be triggered, you really need proteins to be chopped up and presented to our immunological cells, right? For them to be able to activate antibodies, to activate cellular immunity. So we actually just immunize directly the proteins– that we of course make in the labs, they’re synthetic– while when you use something like an RNA technology, you still want your body to process that RNA code into a protein that then that’s what’s presented to the immune system.

So ultimately, what the immune system needs to see are bits and pieces of proteins. And so we kind of jump through all those hoops and immunize directly with proteins. And this is a methodology of, of course, vaccination that’s been used for many years with the hepatitis B vaccine, with the pertussis vaccine, and others.

IRA FLATOW: How could protein-based vaccines help close this gap, especially in places like sub-Saharan Africa, which has a vaccination rate of, what, 10%?

MARIA ELENA BOTTAZZI: So if we go through a quick checklist, right, so one, they’re easily to be produced and with an ecosystem of producers already in existence, including, of course, developing country vaccine manufacturers. So easy to produce and almost in limitless quantities of production yields, right? At the same time, they are affordable because of economies of scale. So they’re cheap, and countries probably can afford to buy more of these vaccines with a price of less than a couple dollars per dose.

We also know that they have track record of safety, so maybe there’s also an increasing acceptance by the populations who today still are thinking about it. And more importantly, the last checkbox is it can be stored at refrigeration and doesn’t require very sophisticated manipulation, and so even during the implementation may be more manageable because it fits exactly how other vaccine programs have been distributing vaccines for decades in our pediatric populations.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, so you’re saying it’s quite familiar. How did you know that a protein-based vaccine would work on COVID-19?

MARIA ELENA BOTTAZZI: Ira, we’ve been working on coronaviruses for 10 years. So our program that started in 2011, designing prototypes for SARS and later for MERS, already had evidence based on our laboratory evaluation that recombinant proteins using spike and pieces of the spike were inducing neutralizing capacity against SARS and MERS. So we predicted that they would also work for COVID-19, especially being a so closely related coronavirus.

IRA FLATOW: So all you had to do was basically take the SARS virus and then switch proteins to go to COVID-19 protein, and bingo.

MARIA ELENA BOTTAZZI: It was pretty much almost magic.

IRA FLATOW: You just swap out one protein for another.

MARIA ELENA BOTTAZZI: Correct. That’s what we did.

IRA FLATOW: Your vaccine does not have a patent, so no one’s going to be making any money on it. I mean, the big pharma companies– they’re making billions on.

MARIA ELENA BOTTAZZI: Why add an added complication to the mix? Our goal has always been open science, transfer our technologies, help build capacity, especially in the low middle income country regions, to teach others not only how to make our vaccines, but eventually so that they can adopt them as theirs. We gave that technology to Bio E. And Corbevax became Biological E’s vaccine and India’s vaccine and hopefully even the world’s vaccine.

IRA FLATOW: So you went to the US government, didn’t you? And they just turned you down.

MARIA ELENA BOTTAZZI: I think they, at that time of early in the pandemic, they were really hoping for a speedy technology. And as you know, RNA molecules maybe are a lot faster to be made in the lab. There’s a little bit of nationalism, right, in the sense that the US was really interested, initially, in protecting the US and hoping to make vaccines for the US. And as that, many other countries that, of course, utilized the multinationals or this concept of producing vaccines ideally for those who eventually were even able to purchase them.

I think people lost the view that, who was going to be able to make such large amounts of vaccines? We need more than 80% of the population to be covered, right? And I think even still today we need, what, more than 9 billion doses to be produced. So I think that’s where we can come in and really bridge this inequity gap.

IRA FLATOW: So could the Corbevax vaccine have been ready early enough, given enough funding, to prevent so much of the suffering and death early in the pandemic?

MARIA ELENA BOTTAZZI: Indeed it could. And it could because even though we have been working with Biological E, who of course co-developed and really did the hard work of advancing production and clinical trials in India, if they could have had maybe more funding, that we could have had a lot more buy-in, political support, play in the engines of Operation Warp Speed or maybe even playing in the engines of World Health Organization or CEPI, we could have had recombinant protein vaccines readily available even before– maybe even before Delta surged.

IRA FLATOW: And so you think there’s enough money now to be able to take the Corbevax vaccine and take enough doses of it to possibly give the billions of people in the rest of the world vaccinations.

MARIA ELENA BOTTAZZI: You know, I think there’s a good start. As you know, we have now to face the challenges of continuous changes in the way this pandemic is looking, with new variants, with the fact that there’s still challenges in how you’re going to have access to supplies or gain the world regulatory approvals. As you know, India gave their authorization. Now, of course, they need to gain other regulatory agencies’ approvals.

But there’s hope, right? For example, there’s a whole quad alliance that involves the US and India and Australia and Japan, I believe. And there’s now this interest of, each of them have an accountability to help the global access. We now have the same collaborations to bring other versions of the COVID-19 vaccines with Indonesia. And we’re working with, now, Bangladesh, and we are also working with a consortia, and we just heard that there’s an intent to produce and manufacture this vaccine in Botswana. So as you can see, it’s kind of like a snowball effect.

IRA FLATOW: So your protein-based vaccine could be our key to ending the pandemic, then.

MARIA ELENA BOTTAZZI: Well, that’s clearly our hope. And if all the stars align rapidly and correctly, I think we are going to be able to at least complement many other efforts are, of course, are happening at the same time. There’s other producers that are also trying to advance more of these recombinant protein type vaccines, plus the fact that we of course have, still, the RNA vaccines and some other vaccine technologies that may still serve and be valuable, right?

I mean, I think– remember, it’s not to replace or neglect the others. It’s really to just, where are the problems that are still happening? Where are the inequity gaps? And how rapidly can we come and fill them? And yes, to then completely get rid of this virus.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Dr. Bottazzi, for your work. And congratulations again. And thank you for coming on to talk with us today.

MARIA ELENA BOTTAZZI: Oh, thank you, Ira. You know, I’m one of your biggest fans, so it’s always a pleasure to be with you.

IRA FLATOW: You’re quite welcome. Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, co-creator of Corbevax, a patent-free protein-based vaccine. She is also co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital and professor at the Baylor College of Medicine, based in Houston.

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