British American Tobacco has moved a step closer to producing a vaccine for coronavirus using tobacco plants, as it won approval in the US to begin testing on humans.
The company behind cigarette brands including Lucky Strike, Rothmans and Benson & Hedges said the US Food & Drug Administration had given it clearance to begin a clinical study with adult volunteers.
While large pharmaceutical companies are already producing vaccines, BAT believes its own can be produced in six weeks, compared with the several months it takes using conventional methods.
This, the company claims, is because of proprietary technology that allows elements of the vaccine to gather quickly on tobacco plants.
BAT also says its vaccine is stable at room temperature, unlike the Pfizer/BioNTech jab being administered in the UK, which must be stored and transported at about -70C.
The vaccine has been developed by BAT’s biotechnology division, Kentucky BioProcessing (KBP), which has previously worked on a treatment for Ebola and is also developing a seasonal flu vaccine.
BAT said KBP had cloned a portion of the genetic sequence of coronavirus and developed a potential antigen, which is then inserted into tobacco plants for reproduction.
KBP, based in Owensboro, Kentucky, says it can turn tobacco plants into “bio-manufacturing factories” capable of producing proteins they would not otherwise produce.
Up to 3m can be grown, harvested and processed within six weeks, meaning the relevant proteins are produced faster than traditional methods, which KBP said could take months.
The company, bought by BAT in 2014, says it can also temporarily encode tobacco plants with the genetic instructions to produce specific target proteins.
Dr David O’Reilly, BAT’s director of scientific research, said: “Moving into human trials with both our Covid-19 and seasonal flu vaccine candidates is a significant milestone and reflects our considerable efforts to accelerate the development of our emerging biologicals portfolio.
“It is our unique plant-based vaccine technology, which acts as a fast, efficient host for the production of antigens for a variety of diseases, that has enabled us to make this progress and respond to the urgent global need for safe and effective treatments and vaccines.”
BAT’s vaccine remains some way behind those being produced by large drug companies such as Pfizer, which is administering doses in the UK and US, with AstraZeneca and Moderna not far behind.
But if it can produce doses quickly and in a stable format, it could aid a global vaccination process likely to last years, as well as burnishing the reputation of a company more used to fielding criticism for damaging people’s health.