MIT-made COVID-19 vax produced by yeast could address global vaccine inequity

Fifteen months since the first COVID-19 vaccine was authorized, only 14% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose compared to almost two-thirds of the global population. 

Researchers at MIT and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center may have an inexpensive solution, announcing Wednesday that their yeast-produced COVID-19 jab, in combination with adjuvants, performed comparably to other approved vaccines, including J&J’s one-shot vax. The vaccine was a collaboration between J. Christopher Love of MIT and Dan Barouch of BIDMC, who were senior authors of the findings released in Science Advances. The study also found that vaccinated primates had lower viral loads than unvaccinated animals. 

The researchers focused on producing a shot that could be easily manufactured, electing to develop a subunit vaccine with pieces of the receptor-binding domain portion of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. To boost the immunogenicity, the researchers coated a virus-like particle with the protein rather than just using the RBD protein itself. The RBD portion of the spike protein acts as the viral key that fits into the lock on cellular receptors in the body. Both the particle and the protein are produced by yeast, which can be grown in a bioreactor. 

Working in collaboration with the Serum Institute of India, the university says large quantities of the vaccine are already being produced with plans to launch a clinical trial in Africa.

RELATED: BioNTech to start building mRNA vaccine manufacturing plant in Africa in mid-2022

“One of the key things that separates our vaccine from other vaccines is that the facilities to manufacture vaccines in these yeast organisms already exist in parts of the world where the vaccines are still most needed today,” said Neil Dalvie, one of the lead authors of the study, in a statement.

The vaccine mirrors the low-cost jab created by the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and its co-directors, Maria Elena Bottazzi, Ph.D. and Peter Hotez Ph.D. When the shot was first authorized in India in December 2021, the vaccine's licensing partner, Biological E. Limited, estimated that it would be able to produce more than 100 million doses a month beginning in February. 

The continued pursuit of a low-cost, easy-to-produce vaccine alternative follows a disproportional global rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines to date, with efforts to lessen disparities still sluggish. So far, 10 COVID-19 vaccines have been authorized by the World Health Organization, but large swaths of the globe remain unvaccinated, particularly in Africa where less than one in five people have received at least one dose and only 1% of the population has had a booster dose.

In recent weeks, some of the top COVID-19 manufacturers have publicly pledged more resources to expand production on the continent, although details have been sparse. In October, BioNTech, which developed its mRNA jab in collaboration with Pfizer, committed $500 million for a new manufacturing facility in Africa to be built in mid-2022. Earlier this month, Moderna announced plans to build its own manufacturing site in Kenya. 

But the announcements follow a global failure from governments, the United Nations and Big Pharmas alike to equitably roll out the vaccine to less-wealthy nations. Efforts like COVAX, led by the World Health Organization, have had to revise down donation estimates due to supply constraints and wealthier countries have dragged their feet on calls to waive intellectual property rights to spur generic alternatives. For many nations, the infrastructure to distribute and administer vaccines still lags, limiting uptake even when shots are available. 

RELATED: Moderna to pour $500M into Africa to meet future mRNA vaccine manufacturing demand

The team behind MIT and BIDMC’s vaccine believe the vaccine could fill this vacuum, adding that if the shot is found to be effective in a clinical trial, it could also serve as a valuable booster dose. 

Editor's note: This story was updated to include details on a similar vaccine created by the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.