Local researcher shares encouraging thoughts about COVID-19 vaccines

A big national announcement was made this week that a couple hundred million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine could be ready by the start of the new year.

We checked-in with Dr. Peter Hotez, the Dean from the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, who has been leading the charge of local research on a coronavirus vaccine.

"I think it's really important to emphasize that I think there's a high probability we will have a COVID-19 vaccine. Making a vaccine against this virus actually turns out to be not as complicated as people might think. This is an old-fashioned problem in biology. You induce an immune response against a part of the virus' spiked protein. If you've ever seen a cartoon of the virus, it's like a doughnut with a bunch of spikes all around it. Turns out, you make an immune response against spiked protein and you've got a vaccine! There are multiple ways to do that. At Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital, we're using an approach to make what's called a recombinant protein vaccine to induce immune response against the spike," explains Dr. Hotez.

He says it can sound complicated, but he says we have to have different types of candidates because we don't know which is going to be the best at inducing immune response. They're trying to figure out which is going to be the most effective and safest option.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, with the Coronavirus Task Force and also the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, announced this week that Phase 2 of the COVID-19 vaccine is underway studying its effects on several hundred people. Then by July, they'll start studying its effects on 30,000 people.

"You need to be able to have enough people getting infected. To compare the differences between those who get the vaccine and those who don't get the vaccine, that's one of the reasons why you need so many people. Also, by testing 30,000 people, if there's going to be a safety problem, this statistic shows a good chance that you're going to know that there's a safety problem after testing," explains Dr. Hotez.

Around 50 percent of Americans have said they do not want to get the vaccine, when it becomes available.

"This has become a real problem. We've got the anti-vaccine movement out there, and it's especially strong in Texas, and their assertions are that vaccines cause autism. I've written a book that vaccines do not cause autism, because I have a daughter with autism. That has sort of made me public enemy number one with the anti-vaccine crowd. The other things they assert is that we rush vaccines, that we do not test them adequately for safety, and lastly they assert that there's this kind of conspiratorial and cozy relationship between the pharma industry and the government. The problem is the way the messaging has rolled out for this big vaccine operation, or even calling it Operation Warp Speed, using a Star Trek metaphor. That's a problem because it plays right into the hands of the anti-vaccine movement that say we're rushing in. Also the fact that some of the companies involved in this, especially some of the biotechs, are putting out these press releases which are not accurate, saying we're going to have a vaccine in days and weeks and we're not, but it gives the impression that we are rushing and so we've helped enable this whole anti-vaccine movement that's out there. The truth is, these vaccines will be tested adequately for safety. We're doing this with 30,000 person trials. It's going to take a year to do those, and so that's the other point. If the first trials go underway, say by towards the end of summer, and then the others will follow along, the first time we could probably actually release a vaccine is the middle of next year. By the middle of 2020, we should still be at the world land speed record," states Dr. Hotez.

Again, Dr. Hotez has been leading the research right here in the Texas Medical Center. The process of their two vaccines is continuing momentum.

"It's good. We're excited about our two different vaccines. We use simpler technology used to make the recombinant Hepatitis B vaccine used all around the world, probably the one my kids got and your kids got. The fact that it's used all around the world and made all around the world is significant because this is the technology for our vaccine. This is used to make Hepatitis B vaccine in India and Brazil, so we think it's going be one of the first global health vaccines, a low cost, highly accessible vaccine. What's happening now with COVID-19, is it's causing such devastation in Brazil for instance, getting hammered right now. Same with Ecuador and Mexico, so who's making the vaccine for Latin America, who's making the vaccine for India, so this is one of our big approaches," explains Dr. Hotez.

For the first vaccine expected to be ready by the first of the year, Dr. Hotez encourages everyone to remember that any of the shortcuts are safe-guarded by the Food and Drug Administration.

"The FDA has got a lot of oversight over it. They know how to do this. They've got some of the best vaccine scientists in the world. The other thing the public needs to know, is the first vaccines that get rolled out are not always the best vaccines in terms of they're safe, but not always the best vaccines in terms of what will work the best. This has been a tradition of vaccines. The first ones out of the starting gate are often replaced. Next year, the year after, new and improved versions might be available," says Dr. Hotez.

For more information on Baylor College of Medicine's research: https://www.bcm.edu/coronavirus/covid-19-research