How Big Tobacco is Helping to Fight COVID-19 | Citizens Against Government Waste

How Big Tobacco is Helping to Fight COVID-19

The WasteWatcher

An eye-catching article in the February 18 Politico, “How the Tobacco Industry Could Join the Coronavirus Fight,” discussed how Reynolds American, a cigarette manufacturer, is infecting tobacco plants with a genetically modified virus to see if antibodies can be produced for a possible vaccine for COVID-19.

Reynolds American, a member of the British American Tobacco Group (BAT), is currently researching vaccine development with its bio-tech subsidiary, Kentucky BioProcessing.  They use “licensed and proprietary technologies to temporarily encode tobacco plants with genetic instructions to produce specific target proteins.”  Pre-clinical testing is underway, and the hope is if it goes well and with support from government agencies, 1 to 3 million human vaccines could be manufactured each week by June.

Using tobacco plants to engineer a virus has been researched for a while.  According to an August 18, 2009 American Chemical Society article, plant-based vaccine production offers cost advantages.  It is less expensive to build greenhouses than sterilized facilities that utilize expensive manufacturing technology and the stainless-steel tanks necessary for current cell cultures used in traditional vaccines.  There are other benefits such as purification issues because there are no infectious agents to clean up or worry about.  Viruses in plants cannot infect humans.

In one example, scientists developed a new vaccine for the norovirus, which is the most common viral infection in the United States next to the flu.  The researchers “re-engineered plant viruses to produce high levels of specially designed ‘virus-like’ nanoparticles in tobacco plants.  At about 25 nanometers in diameter, the particles are about the same size as the norovirus, but they consist only of the outer surface protein — the portion of the virus recognized by the human immune system.  The particles contain none of the infectious material of the original virus, but they stimulate a robust immune response to fight off an actual infection.”

The August 19, 2010 Homeland Security News Wire reported how the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) worked with a biotech company Medicago USA, Inc. to produce vaccines.  DARPA helped the company build a 90,000 square-foot facility with a $21 million grant in North Carolina to grow tobacco plants and use them to scale-up and demonstrate the ability to produce 10 million doses of influenza vaccines.  This project was part of DARPA’s Accelerated Manufacture of Pharmaceuticals program that is intended to “revolutionize current, egg-based vaccine production models, and yield vaccines within three months of ‘emerging and novel biological threats.’” 

Medicago, which was purchased by both Phillip Morris International (PMI) and Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma in 2013, has made “significant progress” in producing an experimental tobacco-based vaccine for COVID-19, according to the March 19, 2020 Market Screener.  It is using its proprietary-based technology that uses virus-like particles (VLP) to develop vaccines using a close relative of the tobacco plant, Nicotiana benthamiana.

Traditional vaccine production, using eggs, takes a long time, six to nine months, but the plant-based is quicker.  Medicago only needs the genetic sequence of the offending virus, not the live virus.  Instead of injecting the virus into eggs, their process “inserts a genetic sequence into agrobacterium, a soil-based bacterium, which is taken up by plants - in this case, a close relative of a tobacco plant.  The plant begins to produce the protein, that can then be used as a vaccine.  If the virus begins to mutate, as is expected for COVID-19, they can update the production using new plants.”

Again, as we have seen these past few weeks, biotech companies, working in partnership with the government, are striving to find ways to fight the virus that causes COVID-19.

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