Canada is using a cousin of tobacco to create a COVID vaccine

A Canadian company is pioneering a new technology using plants. A cousin to tobacco could be a breakthrough for vaccine science.

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 include cholera, Lyme disease, anthrax, and tetanus.

Dr. Nathalie Charland, a Senior Director with Medicago, says that 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 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,” Dr. Charland states. “It’s a more traditional type of vaccine, but id 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.

According to Dr. Charland, “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 30,000 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 dollars to accelerate their vaccine development. 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 Center for Vaccinology says that it looks like the first rollout 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,” Dr. Halperin notes.


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