By Saabira Chaudhuri and Denise Roland 

The race to find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus has an unlikely new entrant: tobacco companies.

Lucky Strike owner British American Tobacco PLC is developing a potential vaccine grown in tobacco plants, while Medicago Inc., a biotech firm partly owned by Marlboro maker Philip Morris International Inc., is pursuing a similar effort.

The initiatives join dozens already under way at drug companies, universities and other research institutions across the globe seeking a vaccine or treatment for Covid-19, the sometimes fatal disease caused by the new coronavirus.

BAT this week said its Kentucky BioProcessing subsidiary had identified an antigen -- a protein it hopes will stimulate an immune response to the virus -- and was reproducing it in tobacco plants. If early tests are successful, human trials could start by June, it said. The unit previously manufactured a drug for Ebola, which was only moderately successful, using a similar method.

"I appreciate that we aren't a conventional vaccine player," said David O'Reilly, BAT's head of scientific research. "I'd ask people to try to look beyond that and look at our technology at face value."

BAT and Medicago are playing in an increasingly crowded field. Johnson & Johnson on Monday said it had made progress on a vaccine that could be ready in early 2021. Moderna Inc. has begun human trials for a vaccine using a novel approach that relies on the virus's messenger RNA, a type of genetic material. Sanofi SA of France has begun work on a similar approach.

While there is no indication that BAT's effort has a greater chance of working than others, using tobacco plants to cultivate a vaccine could be cheaper and faster to scale up than traditional methods, which often use chicken eggs or other animal cells.

Tobacco is well-researched, cheap to grow and can yield large amounts of vaccine quickly. Tobacco-based vaccines also don't need refrigeration, simplifying the supply chain. Scientists say these factors could reduce production time to weeks instead of months and make vaccines as much as 40% cheaper to produce than using animal cells.

The speed and scale at which a vaccine or treatment can be brought to market has become increasingly important as the virus spreads, claiming thousands more lives every day.

The success of BAT's approach -- like all vaccine research efforts -- will depend on whether its product elicits the appropriate immune response to protect against future infection with the new coronavirus, said Beate Kampmann, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine's Vaccine Centre. "What's promising is the scalability, " she said.

Plant-based vaccines are generally made by infecting a plant -- sometimes by dipping leaves in a liquid -- with a bacteria that contains the genetic sequence of the desired protein. The bacteria hijacks the plant cells to make large quantities of the protein in the space of about a week, which is then harvested from the plant and purified into a raw material for the vaccine.

Advocates say plant-based vaccines can more quickly adapt to mutations in viruses and lack pathogens harmful to humans that might be present in animal methods.

However, while tobacco-based vaccines have previously been developed for avian flu and Norwalk norovirus -- also known as cruise-ship virus -- none are commercially available.

That is partly because much of this work is conducted by small laboratories that struggle to attract the industry funding needed for large clinical trials and large-scale manufacture, said Ed Rybicki, director of the Biopharming Research Unit at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

"Academia is trying these things on a small scale," said Dr. Rybicki. "We have to get industry to join us." He has received funding from Medicago Inc., a company part-owned by Philip Morris.

Before coronavirus hit, BAT was working on a tobacco-based influenza vaccine, which is due to be tested on humans next month.

BAT said tests to check if its vaccine stimulates the production of antibodies against Covid-19 will take around four weeks. It then plans to test the vaccine in animals deliberately exposed to the virus but needs to find a partner first. BAT is using fast-growing, Australian dwarf tobacco plants that aren't used in its cigarettes, and says it isn't looking to turn a profit from its potential coronavirus vaccine.

When the vaccine will be available partly depends on whether regulators agree to accelerate clinical studies or grant emergency authorization, the company said. It is also seeking partners to help fund large-scale clinical trials and expand manufacturing capacity.

BAT plans to pre-emptively ramp up production at its site in Kentucky and thinks it could make between one million and three million doses a week by June. It is also exploring production in the U.K.

Medicago, which is one-third owned by Philip Morris, is using a virus-like particle grown in a close relative of the tobacco plant. It is aiming to begin human tests this summer and estimates it would take 12 to 18 months to release the vaccine, although this could be sooner if regulators accelerate the approval process, said Chief Executive Bruce Clark. Virus-like particles mimic viruses, enabling the body's immune system to recognize them and create an immune response, while lacking the core genetic material that makes them harmful and infectious.

The Quebec City-based company has already submitted a plant-based flu vaccine for approval from Health Canada, which Mr. Clark hopes could make the process easier for its coronavirus offering. The Government of Quebec is providing $7 million toward the coronavirus vaccine, which Mr. Clark says will be priced to be widely accessible.

The lower prices for tobacco-based vaccines could be crucial for low- and middle-income countries, said Julian Ma, director of the Institute for Infection and Immunity at St. George's Hospital Medical School in London. "This is important for a disease which is spreading to every country in the world," he said.

Write to Saabira Chaudhuri at saabira.chaudhuri@wsj.com and Denise Roland at Denise.Roland@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 04, 2020 11:14 ET (15:14 GMT)

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