A Tobacco-Based COVID-19 Vaccine?

Some might call it an organic approach to fighting COVID 19. A Canadian company is in the final stages of testing a plant-based COVID-19 virus vaccine that they hope can get approval for distribution later this year. Medicago, based near Quebec City, is using chloroplast proteins found in a plant within the tobacco family and native to Australia.

Using plant-chloroplast to create vaccines is not new, as the approach has been used to fight both viral and bacterial diseases. Plant-based virus fighting vaccines include rotavirus in humans and parvovirus in animals. Its bacterial disease vaccines including cholera, Lyme disease, anthrax and tetanus.

Dr. Nathalie Charland, a Medicago with Medicago, says the company is currently in phase three testing of its human trials. She said that, like most of the COVID vaccines already approved, this plant- based vaccine requires two doses, 21 days apart. But she says the Medicago vaccine is inherently different because it does not include COVID 19 genetic material.

“Our vaccine is protein-based, so it’s not mRNA based like the first vaccines that have been approved. It’s a more traditional type of vaccine, but it doesn’t contain genetic information. Because it looks a lot like the virus, in shape and in the structure, the immune system reacts very well.”

To date Medicago’s plant-chloroplast vaccine is showing responses in trials quite similar to conventional measures commonly referred to as adjuvanted vaccines.

“So, phase one showed that the safety profile was pretty similar to what we see in general with adjuvanted vaccines. We hope that we’ll see the same thing in the populations we’re testing right now. We will be targeting thirty-thousand subjects across the world.”

In March of last year, the Canadian government announced it would fund Medicago’s COVID-19 vaccine efforts and signed an agreement for up to $175 Million to accelerate Medicago’s vaccine development. But the irony here is that if, and when this Canadian company rolls out its plant-based vaccine, American patients will probably be first in line.

Back in 2009 Medicago was unsuccessful in getting financial backing from Ottawa but it did get funding from the U.S. government.

Dr. Scott Halperin of the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology says it looks like the first roll-out of the Medicago vaccine will not originate in Quebec or in Canada, but from their facility in Durham, North Carolina.

“The U.S. government supported the Canadian company first. It’s good that the Canadian government is now supporting a Canadian company.”

Medicago is hoping to receive approval for its plant-chloroplast based vaccine in mid-2021.