How a use for tobacco helps accelerate COVID-19 vaccine

October 28, 2020 09:44
Biotech firm Medicago, part-owned by Philip Morris, say producing vaccines using tobacco plants could be cheaper and faster. Photo: Medicago.

In the race for a coronavirus vaccine, North Carolina-based biotech company Medicago has discovered tobacco plants which are useful for things other than getting humans addicted.

The firm, supported by a Philip Morris International subsidiary, announces to supply up to 76 million doses of its plant-derived COVID-19 vaccine candidate for the Canadian government, subject to medicines regulator Health Canada's approval.

According to the agreement with Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC), Innovation, Science & Economic Development (ISED), another department of the Canadian federal government, will contribute $173 million Canadian Dollars (approximately HK$1 billion) to Medicago, to support its on-going vaccine development and clinical trials, and for the construction of its Quebec City manufacturing facility.

Medicago is reportedly developing the vaccine in partnership with the British drug company GlaxoSmithKline. It began Phase 1 testing on volunteers on July 14 and is anticipating that Phase 2 trials will begin in early November 2020. If Phase 2 trials are successful, Phase 3 trials are expected to begin in December 2020.

The two companies have said its preclinical results show the vaccine demonstrated a "high level of neutralizing antibodies following a single dose."

Canada has already signed six other contracts for vaccine doses with other pharmaceutical giants, such as AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer.

Philip Morris Investments B.V. (PMIBV), a subsidiary of Philip Morris International (PMI), currently holds an approximately one-third equity stake of Medicago, has supported Medicago’s plant-derived research and development focused on vaccines.

“Better outcomes can be achieved when governments and companies join efforts to promote shared objectives for the greater good,” said PMI’s CEO André Calantzopoulos. “We are pleased to be able to support Medicago’s work to develop, substantiate, manufacture, and make available a COVID-19 vaccine candidate. We all hope they will be successful.”

Working on COVID-19 immunizations, Medicago has been pursuing plant-based flu vaccines for years, using Nicotiana benthamiana, a plant closely related to the variety used for cigarettes, and impregnating them with genetic material from a flu virus. The plants then generate “virus-like particles,” or VLPs, on their leaves, which Medicago harvests for making vaccines.

Besides vaccines, Nicotiana benthamiana has already been used to develop pharmaceuticals. According to Fast Company’s report, a team of researchers in Austria are using it to make a potential cancer drug.

Medicago medical officer Brian Ward told Fast Company that plant vaccines have the potential to “democratize vaccine production,” due to the lower cost to grow and incubate.

Medicago estimates that its large-scale facility opening in 2023 could produce 1 billion vaccine doses per year.

-- Contact us at [email protected]