María Elena Bottazzi: The Latina Scientist Who Helped Create a COVID-19 Vaccine

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When María Elena Bottazzi left Honduras, she never expected to one day be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Bottazzi is a microbiologist at the Texas’s Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Tex.

She, along with Dr. Peter Hotez of Baylor Medicine, created the Corbevax vaccine for COVID-19.

They wanted to create a unique vaccine that was patent-free and cheaper to produce than the vaccines already on the market.

“Peter and I aspire to benefit people, which is why we created a vaccine for the poorest communities in the world. The team that we have built shares the same interest in promoting public health and, obviously, learning at the same time,” Bottazzi said, according to NBC Latino.

Bottazzi and Hotez were recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize because of this achievement.

Learn more about Bottazzi, her path to developing a new COVID-19 vaccine amid a global pandemic, and her focus on health equity.

Her Background & Education

Bottazzi was born in Italy and raised in Honduras.

She studied microbiology and clinical chemistry as an undergraduate at the National Autonomous University of Honduras in 1989.

“I studied in Honduras, so it’s a lie that one always has to be educated in high-income countries. Our education, if you do your part and dedicate yourself, can achieve the excellence of the highest educational systems and we can learn what is needed,” Bottazzi said, according to NBC Latino.

Being a Latina immigrant, Bottazzi worked hard to overcome bias, discrimination, and imposter syndrome.

“One always has that idea that since you are a woman and you come from studying in Latin American countries or spaces, you cannot compete to seek opportunities outside the country, but you can,” Bottazzi said, according to NBC Latino.

Bottazzi earned her doctorate in molecular immunology and experimental pathology from the University of Florida in 1995.

Then, she did her post-doctoral work in cellular biology at the University of Miami in 1998 and the University of Pennsylvania in 2001.

She later taught at George Washington University before relocating to Houston to work at the Texas’s Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development in 2011.

Developing the COVID-19 Vaccine

Bottazzi and her team have been studying and creating vaccines for over a decade.

“Our goal has always been to develop and manufacture cheap, durable vaccines to contribute to global health,” Bottazzi said, according to NBC Latino.

When Bottazzi and her team worked to create the new vaccine Corbevax, they focused on making it accessible and easy-to-replicate to countries around the world.

Maria Bottazzi

“It’s using proteins, which are made in a vegan way because we use a yeast fermentation system. And I have to say, we’ve gotten enormous reactions from the people,” Bottazzi said, according to ABC 13. “It’s an unbelievable feeling. Just the thought of thinking of us, and of our team, and the work that we are doing and have been doing for two decades. This is just unbelievable.”

Rather than the mRNA technology that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use, Corbevax is based on recombinant protein, which has been used for decades in drugs like the hepatitis B and pertussis vaccines.

This technology is also cheaper for other countries to use.

“Its development is free; any government or company can contact us and we will give them the starter kit to start manufacturing. Our doses cost between $2 and $3, compared to the others. In recent trials, it’s over 80 percent effective with variants like beta and delta, and we’re looking into how it reacts with omicron,” Bottazzi said, according to NBC Latino.

Corbevax was already approved in India, after two Phase III clinical trials were successful.

‘Hopefully, it will be game-changing for many countries,’ Bottazzi said, according to Houston Public Media.

Making Corbevax Equitable for the World

When it comes to public health crises, developing countries are sometimes left behind and struggle with the costs of protecting their people.

That’s why Bottazzi wants to make Corbevax accessible for developing nations.

“Many regions would benefit from learning about this vaccine development ecosystem to move away from technology dependency. Our Latin American countries, for example, always have to wait for someone to solve their problems, but this is an opportunity to begin to have regional self-sufficiency,” Bottazzi said, according to NBC Latino.

It couldn’t come at a better time.

Less than 9 percent of residents in low-income countries have received a dose, according to Our World in Data.

“I think one of the reasons it’s been a bit viral is the fact that everybody’s been talking about equity, equity, equity and nobody does much of anything,” Bottazzi said, according to The Texas Tribune. “And then all of a sudden they learn that we have this vaccine that has been open science, with no proprietary technology. And they’re saying, ‘Wait, where has this been?’”

In early February, Bottazzi got the news that she and Hotez were nominated 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,” Bottazzi said, according to NBC Latino.

It hits close to home, as she feels the importance of helping her home country.

“I am Central American and doing nonprofit projects is my way of giving back a little of what Honduras has given me,” Bottazzi said, according to Noticias Telemundo.

How Can We Help Latinos Get Vaccinated?

With help from scientists like Bottazzi, we can get vaccines to everyone around the world.

Stay informed by learning the facts about COVID-19 and the vaccine and avoiding vaccine misinformation, which is prominent and often targets Latinos.

One resource you can use is Salud America!’s Latino COVID-19 Vaccine “Change of Heart” Bilingual Storytelling Campaign. The campaign, also in Spanish, shares the stories of real Latinos who overcame misinformation, got the vaccine, reconnected with family, and are helping end the pandemic.

Helen Cordova is one of the Latinas who was unsure about the vaccine initially. She was nervous it was produced too quickly and that it wouldn’t be safe.

But after learning more about the vaccine, she decided to get it so she could protect her family and her patients in the ICU. She became the first person in California to get vaccinated!

You can share Helen’s story with your friends, family, and colleagues!

SHARE HELEN’S STORY IN ENGLISH!

SHARE HELEN’S STORY IN SPANISH!

Editor’s Note: Images from Max Trautner/Texas Children’s Hospital.

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This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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