The Covid-19 pandemic has challenged everything we took for granted about human civilization in the 21st century. An invisible agent forced us to lock ourselves indoors, reformulate our lifestyles, and perceive the world in a radically different way.
However, for scientists, the pandemic meant an unprecedented race against the clock, searching for a short, medium, and long-term solution for a virus with a mutation capacity that has forced us to get used to annual waves of contagions.
However, microbiologist María Elena Bottazzi did not give up.
Along with Dr. Peter Hotez, Bottazzi, 56, a microbiologist, led the Texas Children’s Hospital’s Center for Vaccine Development team that created the Corbevax vaccine for Covid-19, an off-patent drug that last month received emergency approval for use in India.
As NBC News reported, the new Corbevax vaccine could change the global landscape. 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 to activate the body’s immune response without making patients sick.
“Peter and I aspire to benefit people, which is why we created a vaccine for the poorest communities in the world,” Bottazzi told NBC News. “The team that we have built shares the same interest in promoting public health and, obviously, learning at the same time.”
In order to gain approval in India, two Phase III clinical trials were conducted at 33 research sites with more than 3,000 participants between 18 and 80. The trials found Corbevax to be safe and well-tolerated. The company claimed that the vaccine was more than 90% effective against the original Covid strain and more than 80% 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.”
Although titanic, Bottazzi’s mission is certainly worthy of great accolades.
The daughter of a Honduran diplomat, Maria Elena Bottazzi, was born in Italy and moved to her father’s homeland at the age of eight. She studied microbiology and clinical chemistry at the National Autonomous University of Honduras and received her doctorate in molecular immunology and experimental pathology from the University of Florida.
Bottazzi completed a postdoctoral fellowship in cell biology at the University of Miami and Pennsylvania. She is currently associate dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and a distinguished professor of biology at Baylor University, Waco, Texas.
Together with Hotez, Bottazzi developed one of the first Covid-19 vaccines ready for human testing in 2016 but failed to get anyone interested in funding it. Once they overcame the financial hurdles, Bottazzi and Hotez decided to offer the vaccine without charging a licensing fee for the intellectual property, hoping to reduce vaccination costs.
“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 told NBC News. “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.
Now, her hard work has finally been recognized.
Last week, Maria Elena Bottazzi received a call from Congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher, D-Texas, who 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.