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Manufacturing firm developing COVID-19 vaccine from tobacco

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Medicago, a Canadian-based company, is now focusing on developing a plant-based coronavirus disease vaccine which it hopes will be submitted to the US Food and Drug Administration for approval very soon.

Medicago said it successfully produced a Virus-Like Particle (VLP) of the coronavirus just 20 days after receiving the genetic sequence of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-COV2), the virus responsible for COVID-19. This is the breakthrough first step in developing a vaccine.

Medicago already uses a plant-based technology to develop vaccines for seasonal flu, but is now working on developing a vaccine for COVID-19.  Instead of working with live virus in chicken eggs as a bioreactor, Medicago uses tobacco plants in what it describes as a faster and more efficient process of producing proteins. 

The company said that using tobacco plants and genetically engineered agrobacteria works faster than using eggs.  It also makes the vaccine easier to produce at scale.  The company believes that tobacco plants are "highly efficient at producing proteins of varying complexity, serving as mini-factories for our vaccines." 

With its plant-based technology, Medicago researchers insert a genetic sequence into agrobacterium, a soil bacteria, which is taken up by the subject plant Nicotiana benthamiana—known as a close relative to tobacco. The plant develops the protein that can be used as a vaccine. 

“The pace of our initial progress in COVID-19 is attributable to the capability of our plant-based platform which is able to produce vaccine and antibody solutions to counteract this global public health threat. The ability to produce a candidate vaccine within 20 days after obtaining the gene is a critical differentiator for our proven technology. This technology enables scale-up at unprecedented speed to potentially combat COVID-19.” said Dr. Bruce Clark, CEO of Medicago.

Medicago researchers discovered that tobacco, with its ideal big leaves, is much better as a subject plant because it is hearty and grows quickly.  Clinical grade plant material can be produced in a little more than a month.  The company believes the process is a better way to cultivate the vaccine. 

Medicago has a 97,000-square-foot greenhouse in North Carolina where it grows Nicotiana benthamiana—a flowering plant endemic to Australia and known as close relative to Nicotiana tabacum or tobacco plant.  The company grows the plants in Durham's Research Triangle Park, the leading and largest high-technology research and science park in North America, not for cigarette production but for use in testing and development of the seasonal flu vaccine. 

Amid the spread of COVID-19 pandemic, Medicago decided to focus on the development of COVID-19 vaccine this time.

Medicago researchers said if the virus begins to mutate, as is expected for COVID-19, they can update the production using new plants.

In its announcement, Medicago said it will initiate preclinical testing for safety and efficacy of the vaccine.  If approved by the FDA, the company expects to begin human trials by July or August. 

Medicago said it also began using its technology platform to develop antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 in collaboration with the Laval University’s Infectious Disease Research Centre. The antibodies could potentially be used to treat people infected by the virus.  The university program is headed by Gary Kobinger, who helped develop a vaccine and treatment for Ebola.

Medicago said it is great to develop something positive from a plant with a negative stigma such as tobacco. The potential of turning a plant that has been associated with harm to preserve life is a positive development.

Medicago is a Quebec-based company that is partly owned by Philip Morris Investments, a part of Philip Morris International whose research, development and production signal a tectonic shift in its core business operation as it moves away from traditional cigarettes to heated tobacco products. 

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