Tobacco Firm Making Possible COVID-19 Vaccine

British American Tobacco subsidiary aided in Ebola crisis; production could start by June, company says
Photograph courtesy of British American Tobacco

LONDON — British American Tobacco (BAT), through a U.S. biotech subsidiary, is developing a potential vaccine for COVID-19 that uses tobacco leaves and is now in pre-clinical testing, according to the company.

If the London-based tobacco company secures partners and support from government agencies, the owner of Reynolds American Inc. (RAI) could produce 1 million to 3 million doses of the vaccine per week beginning in June through the RAI-owned Kentucky BioProcessing (KBP), Owensboro, Ky., BAT said.

In 2014, KBP was one of the companies that developed an effective treatment for Ebola, having manufactured ZMapp with San Diego, Calif.-based Mapp BioPharmaceuticals in partnership with the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), BAT said.

KBP recently cloned a portion of COVID-19’s genetic sequence that led to the development of a potential antigen—a substance that induces an immune response in the body and, in particular, the production of antibodies. This antigen was then inserted into tobacco plants for reproduction and, once the plants were harvested, the antigen was then purified, and it is now undergoing pre-clinical testing.

BAT is now exploring partnerships with government agencies to bring its vaccine to clinical studies as soon as possible. 

While KBP remains a commercial operation, the intention is that its work around the COVID-19 vaccine project will be carried out on a not-for-profit basis, the company said.

The vaccine in development uses BAT’s proprietary, tobacco-plant technology, which the company said has several advantages over conventional vaccine-production technology:

  • It is potentially safer given that tobacco plants can’t host pathogens which cause human disease.
  • It is faster because the elements of the vaccine accumulate in tobacco plants much more quickly: six weeks in tobacco plants vs. several months using conventional methods.
  •  The vaccine formulation KBP is developing remains stable at room temperature, unlike conventional vaccines, which often require refrigeration.
  •  It has the potential to deliver an effective immune response in a single dose.

BAT’s U.S. subsidiary RAI, Winston-Salem, N.C., acquired KBP in 2014, with the aim of using some of its tobacco-extraction technology to aid in further development of its new noncombustible products.

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