Dr. Maria Elena Bottazi, Vaccinologist and Global Health Advocate
By Christine Bolaños
Raised by a diplomat single father and a family of cattle ranchers in Honduras, Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi realized from an early age that there were disparities in access to health and wealth among urban and rural residents. She didn’t think that geographic location or income should determine quality or access to healthcare, so she instead advocated for global-health equity. That is what drew her to microbiology and to understand the relationship between pathogens and humans so that she could look at ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat diseases. She developed a mindset of a public health official wherein everything she does is not to garner fame, power or money, but rather, to help make health more equitable and affordable across the world.
That drive to push for medicine that was accessible to all people ultimately led her to develop a patent-free coronavirus vaccine with Dr. Peter J. Hotez for which they are nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The CORBEVAX vaccine, dubbed the “World’s COVID-19 vaccine,” is easily reproducible and globally affordable.
“I think the vaccine has led to a renewed optimism around the world. You have no idea how many messages we’ve received from people from all walks of life about how the vaccine has changed their lives,” Dr. Bottazzi shares. “I think it’s our openness and the fact that we didn’t put barriers to our intellectual property and that we are gifting this to the world.”
The CORBEVAX vaccine is a protein subunit vaccine that uses a harmless piece of spike protein from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 to stimulate and prepare the immune system for future encounters with the virus. Unlike the three vaccines approved in the U.S., including Pfizer and Moderna’s mRNA vaccines and Johnson & Johnson’s viral vector vaccine, CORBEVAX delivers the spike protein to the human body directly.
Drs. Bottazzi and Hotez are co-directors of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development at Baylor College of Medicine and created a similar vaccine in response to the 2003 SARS outbreak. The first SARS epidemic was short-lived and the vaccine was not advanced through clinical development. According to the Alliance for Science, they made the COVID-19 vaccine by updating the spike protein to match that of SARS-COV-2.
Dr. Bottazzi says her team faced barriers in making the covid vaccine a reality, but the challenges were worth the far-reaching impact the vaccine now has.
“It was very difficult to garner interest of funders and even to some level, the interest of our peers and global agencies, because the world decided to primarily focus on new technology without bringing proven conventional platforms to the table,” she recalls.
This despite decades-worth of pre-clinical data proving that protein-based vaccines against coronaviruses worked. A large clinical trial in India found the vaccine was safe, well-tolerated and more than 90 percent effective at preventing symptomatic infections. The Alliance for Science reports that the vaccine received emergency-use authorization in India and other developing countries are following suit, including Botswana in Africa.
The resilience her parents and other family members instilled in her during her upbringing served as fuel for her to take charge of the situation. “I was raised as an Italian Honduran and that combination of Europe and Latin America, combined with going to an American school, really gives you a global perspective,” Dr. Bottazzi says.
“There are many benefits like speaking multiple languages, understanding different cultures and engaging with the world with a more open mind. My story, my roots, my culture, the way I speak and do things, the way I react and am more cognizant that there are other stories out there, are all valuable assets to working in this globalized world.”
Dr. Bottazzi shares her team had the moral courage to continue working on the vaccine despite naysayers who thought it wasn’t feasible, not important enough or that there wasn’t enough money in it. This grit is what led her team to secure the right partners and funders who shared the same values and agreed the vaccine was a valid approach to addressing the coronavirus globally.
At the time of this interview, the vaccine has been administered to more than 18 million children. The coronavirus has been linked to six million deaths around the world.
U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher of Houston nominated Drs. Hotez and Bottazzi for the Nobel, calling their work to develop CORBEVAX an example of international cooperation and partnership to bring health, security and peace worldwide.
“The effort to develop and distribute a low-cost vaccine to all people in all nations without patent limitation represents the work for fraternity between nations and people that the Nobel Peace Prize embodies and celebrates,” Fletcher says. “It is a contribution that is of the greatest benefit to humankind.”
In response, Dr. Bottazzi says her team of researchers are bursting at the seams with joy.
“We are really impacting the lives of so many millions of kids and their families. That is just the initial feeling. It’s a snowball effect of how we might be written in history books and therefore have a lasting impact,” she explains. “But with that, comes a sense of responsibility that all we have done should not stop with us.”
She feels called to share her team’s story and knowledge to ensure others continue their legacy and encourage more young scientists to pursue microbiology and create new vaccines.
“We are so honored to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize because humans are able to achieve peace by learning to work together and how to be more transparent with each other and not create more problems,” Dr. Bottazzi adds. “We have to work together to address problems. We have to listen to everyone. We have to be genuinely good listeners, to have self-esteem and confidence, creativity, compassion, collaboration and better communication. Ultimately, that is what really leads to peace.”
The pandemic has also been a humbling experience for scientists in her field as they realized they were not prepared for the enormity of the pandemic.
“We realize we are not communicating well within our communities to really create a bridge between those clearly using it as anti-science tools to put fear into people and advance their political interests,” she explains.
“Ultimately, it’s a recognition that scientists have to do a better job at being better communicators. The silver lining is that we can achieve anything when we set our minds to it. COVID-19 is unprecedented but it’s a private-public global collaboration and what we need now is to sustain those relationships and realize that public health is not an afterthought,” Dr. Bottazzi proclaims. “The hope for the future is that we take these lessons learned and we create a more resilient, collaborative, and sustainable global system where we can be proactive instead of reactive to situations like covid.”
Photo courtesy: Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development.