BAT and Philip Morris claim they're developing 'faster and safer' coronavirus vaccine using tobacco plants
Plant-based vaccines can be produced cheaply in very high amounts, according to the World Health Organization
Tobacco kills more than 8 million people each year but its makers are trying to work on a solution to save the world from the coronavirus pandemic.
Two tobacco industry giants are trying to produce a tobacco-based plant vaccine against the new coronavirus. The tobacco industry giants involved are Philip Morris International (PMI) and British American Tobacco (BAT).
Tobacco plants, according to BAT, offer the potential for faster and safer vaccine development compared to conventional methods. "If testing goes well, BAT is hopeful that, with the right partners and support from government agencies, between 1 and 3 million doses of the vaccine could be manufactured per week, beginning in June," BAT said in a press statement.
The company also said its US biotech subsidiary, Kentucky BioProcessing (KBP), is developing a potential vaccine for COVID-19 and is now undergoing preclinical testing. According to the statement, they are carrying out this work on a not-for-profit basis.
This is not the first time KBP has worked on therapeutics. In 2014, it helped develop a treatment for Ebola with California-based company Mapp BioPharmaceuticals and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).
BAT has reached out to US Food and Drug Administration with its plan. “Vaccine development is challenging and complex work, but we believe we have made a significant breakthrough with our tobacco plant technology platform and stand ready to work with Governments and all stakeholders to help win the war against COVID-19. We fully align with the United Nations plea, for a whole-of-society approach to combat global problems," it said.
The other company, Philip Morris International (PMI), has also set its eyes on designing vaccines. It has tasked Medicago — a Canada-headquartered biopharmaceutical company, partly funded by PMI — with this responsibility.
In a press statement, PMI said that Medicago has made significant progress towards producing an experimental plant-based vaccine for COVID-19. The company is all set to begin preclinical testing for safety and efficacy and is aiming to start human trials later this summer.
How are they making these vaccines?
Plant-based vaccines are produced from genetically modified plants. Scientists design plants capable of producing a part of the new coronavirus. When humans consume these plants, the virus particles in them can instigate the immune system. As a result, the body produces powerful weapons called antibodies that can fight if a virus were to attack.
In this case, the companies are using tobacco plants to produce a part of the new coronavirus. "Plant-based can be produced cheaply in very high amounts," according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
BAT said it developed a potential toxin or viral antigen. They then inserted the antigen into tobacco plants which produce the antigens in large quantities. After harvesting the plants, they isolated the antigen. This antigen is being tested pre-clinically. Through this method, BAT can make vaccines in six weeks as opposed to conventional vaccines that take several months.
Philip Morris’s Medicago uses a close relative of the tobacco plant to produce a virus-like protein. Because the plant does not produce the live virus and only produces a virus-like protein, it allows the body’s immune system to recognize them and create an immune response, without being able to infect or replicate.