Biotech company on a rush to develop COVID-19 vaccine from tobacco plants

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The increasing number of coronavirus victims around the world has put all the research centres in efforts to develop a vaccine that can prevent people from getting sick from coronavirus.

In this effort, Canadian-based biotech company, Medicago partially owned by Philip Morris International (PMI), announced that it now focuses on developing a plant-based vaccine against coronavirus disease which it hopes to submit for approval by the US Food and Drug Administration very soon.

Medicago in a statement 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 agrobacterium 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.

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