A tobacco-based COVID vaccine?

In the race to come up with a viable vaccine for the novel coronavirus, many groups around the world have been diving into the effort with a great sense of urgency. Various hospitals, universities and even bio-tech companies (some of whom have never produced a vaccine before) have gotten in on the action. But I’ll confess that I didn’t anticipate hearing about tobacco companies entering the competition. And yet, here we are. One of the biggest tobacco companies in the world, British American Tobacco, has somehow developed a vaccine that they say shows great promise and they’re ready to begin limited human testing. (Bloomberg)

An experimental Covid-19 vaccine developed by cigarette maker British American Tobacco Plc is poised to begin testing in humans.

Pre-clinical tests of the vaccine showed a positive immune response, the London-based tobacco company said Friday in a statement. The first phase of human trials could begin as soon as late June if authorized by drug regulators, BAT said.

Drugmakers from around the world have jumped into the vaccine race, with more than 100 candidates in development in the U.S., Europe, China and other regions. BAT rival Philip Morris International Inc. is also testing an immunization. Smoking cigarettes, the two companies’ main products, may raise the risk of severe Covid symptoms, according to the World Health Organization.

Okay, so it wasn’t the main tobacco producing company BAT who developed the vaccine. It was a one of their subsidiaries, Kentucky BioProcessing, that’s been doing the development work. The company is described as a “leading producer of recombinant proteins using tobacco plants… to express, extract and purify proteins for use as vaccines and other pharmaceuticals.”

Huh. Who knew? It appears that they’ve been in the field of creating vaccines for a while now. When I first saw the headline, I was reminded of some stories we’ve seen this year indicating that smokers may be less likely to contract COVID-19. There was even talk of treating patients with nicotine patches and the French began experimenting with that idea. But later studies suggested that may not be true. And habitual smokers wind up at greater risk if they end up becoming infected anyway because of their decreased lung capacity.

But none of the vaccine work being done at BAT appears to revolve around nicotine at all. In order to develop a vaccine, researchers need to generate specialized proteins that allow them to grow the test virus (in this case, Sars-CoV-2) in a fashion allowing it to be transferred into humans to stimulate an immune response. Traditionally this has been done using the cells of various animals, leading to concerns that other animal viruses might be “hitching a ride” in the vaccine and causing other problems downstream. But using plant cells has the potential to eliminate some of those possible issues. Apparently BAT has found that modified strains of the tobacco plant are highly effective in this process.

Hey, it sounds good to me. I don’t care if they’re using dandelions as long as it results in a viable, safe and effective vaccine. Now, who wants to be among the first people to volunteer to have this concoction injected into them as a test subject? I think I’ll leave that task to some of you younger, healthier (and preferably non-smoking) heroes.

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