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'This is a low-cost people's vaccine:' Expert on India's Biological E vaccine

·Senior Reporter
·3 min read
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Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) is getting lots of help both at home and abroad to get its COVID-19 jab out to the masses.

In the U.S., Merck (MRK) stepped up to begin the process this month, while in Europe, Sanofi (SNY) has offered to help fill and finish vials. And in India, J&J has already partnered with the world's largest vaccine maker, the Serum Institute of India.

But the latest aid comes from another Indian vaccine maker, Biological E, based in Hyderabad. The International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) committed to supporting Biological E's manufacturing of 1 billion doses by 2022, stemming from the Quad Summit this week between leaders of India, Australia, Japan, and the U.S.

But beyond J&J, Biological E is also collaborating with the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas to produce another COVID-19 vaccine, which is currently in Phase 2 trials in India. DFC did not specify how much support was specifically for the Baylor vaccine or for J&J's vaccine, but it did say it is working with BioE to increase capacity to support 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines, "including Johnson & Johnson vaccines, by the end of 2022," in a statement to Yahoo Finance.

"The financing will increase manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines for distribution in Southeast Asia and around the world. Biological E has a diverse portfolio of vaccines, which is important for strengthening global health systems overall as well as responding to the COVID-19 pandemic," the statement said.

Dr. Peter Hotez, one of the U.S.'s top vaccine experts, helped create a low-cost COVID-19 vaccine being tested in collaboration with BioE. He joined Yahoo Finance from his office in Houston to discuss the news of U.S. support.

The vaccine he helped develop relies on the same technology used for Hepatitis B, meaning it is a known and scalable platform. This makes the vaccine a low-cost option for countries.

"Right now Africa and Latin America, especially, are desperate for COVID-19 vaccines," Hotez said.

The two-dose vaccine candidate is now in Phase 2 trials in India, and has also received support from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), which also supported Novavax (NVAX).

But Hotez notes the vaccine production process is not an easy one.

"It doesn't take much to alter public perception of a vaccine or to vote a vaccine off the island," he said, referring to concerns about AstraZeneca's vaccine.

It's why he remains focused on going through the clinical trial process first. Biological E is looking to get into Phase 3 trials soon in India with a goal of having the vaccine authorized by summer.

And things are quickly changing, even as the trial process continues. Hotez noted that because of the prevalence and increasing spread of variants, all vaccines will likely need to be more than one dose.

"Even the J&J vaccine may need to move to two doses, and the mRNA vaccines to three doses," Hotez said.

But the mRNA vaccines in particular could be out of reach of some low or middle income countries, due to pricing or the cold-storage needs.

"Innovative vaccines are going to be slow to filter to low/middle income countries," Hotez said, noting that the more than 1.1 billion in Africa will need more than 2 billion doses to be fully vaccinated.

"The mRNA vaccine technology is still too new to scale at that level," he said.

It's why Hotez is particularly bullish on the vaccine platform he is using, which has been around for 40 years, at the low cost of about $1.50 per dose — possibly the lowest on the market.

"This is not a money-making vaccine, this is a low-cost peoples' vaccine," Hotez said, adding it could still find a market in the U.S. and Europe for children later in the year.

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