Cigarette Maker Claims Its Developed Coronavirus Vaccine from Tobacco Plants
British American Tobacco (BAT) says it can make 3 million a week, be ready for June
One of the largest cigarette makers in the world has claimed it has developed a vaccine for the deadly COVID-19 from tobacco plants, according to reports.
British American Tobacco (BAT) - one of the top five companies in Big Tobacco and manufacturer of Lucky Strike and Benson & Hedges - says, with government support, it can have the vaccine ready by June.
The British-headquartered firm says it is reaching out to the UK Government and World Health Organization (WHO) for backing and will produce the drugs "at cost," or without profit.
BAT says the unproven vaccine is currently being tested on animals and is calling on Whitehall to fast-track the vaccine through rigorous human trials.
Typically, a vaccine can take the best part of a year to pass testing and human trails, which would make the June date impossible.
If fast-tracked and proven, BAT says it is ready to start producing 3 million doses of the vaccine per week starting early June.
BAT said it had pivoted its vast resources - the company is worth £65.5billion ($81.2B) - to fighting the pandemic.
Tobacco firms are currently barred from doing deals with governments under World Health Organisation rules, but BAT said it planned to contact the WHO.
The company said it had approached the US Food and Drug Administration and the UK's Department of Health and Social Care about its vaccine.
It hopes to partner with the government agencies to bring the vaccine to clinical studies this month.
In a statement it said: "If testing goes well, BAT is hopeful that, with the right partners and support from government agencies, between 1million and 3million doses of the vaccine could be manufactured per week, beginning in June."
The vaccine is being developed by BAT's subsidiary firm Kentucky BioProcessing (KBP) in the US, using tobacco plant technology.
KBP has previous experience of fighting outbreaks.
It helped develop an effective drug for Ebola in 2014, called ZMapp.
BAT said KBP researchers have managed to clone a portion of the coronavirus's genetic sequence and developed a potential antigen.
Kentucky BioProcessing has inserted the antigen into tobacco plants where the living structures of the plants will help it to grow and reproduce.
Once harvested, the antigens are extracted and purified and inserted into the body as a vaccine.
The WHO says plant-derived vaccines have several advantages over conventional methods.
Dr. David O'Reilly, director of scientific research at BAT, said: "Vaccine development is challenging and complex work.
"But we believe we have made a significant breakthrough with our tobacco plant technology platform and stand ready to work with governments and all stakeholders to help win the war against COVID-19.
"We fully align with the United Nations plea, for a whole-of-society approach to combat global problems.
"We are committed to contributing to the global effort to halt the spread of COVID-19 using this technology."
Dr. Melanie Saville, from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), said a vaccine could be rolled out under an "emergency protocol" before it has been officially licensed for use.
"Normally vaccine development can take maybe ten years, maybe 20 years," Dr. Saville said.
"What we are trying to do is reduce that to a 12-18 month time frame.
"If all were to go well, we could anticipate there should be a vaccine that could be used more widely, at least under some kind of emergency authorization process," she said.
Such a process would see vaccines that have had clinical trials and are deemed safe by scientists rolled out before they have been officially approved for use.
Dr. Saville said the World Health Organisation and international organization Gavi, which receives £300million ($372M) in UK aid a year, will play a critical role in determining which countries need it first and who exactly.
The objective is to get millions of doses ready but crucially that will still leave billions waiting.
She added: "At the beginning, it takes a while to make the very large doses of vaccines that are needed.
"That is why there really does need to be a prioritization for those who need it most, with a view that the capacity will be developed so that it will be very widely available."
This could be health care workers "who obviously it is very important to keep them healthy and safe," or other vulnerable groups, she said.
Asked if there was a danger of rolling out the vaccines before they have been officially approved, Dr. Saville said: "Always safety is paramount with vaccines so it is always important to make sure you are following volunteers in clinical trials carefully."
She said lockdown and social distancing measures were important so the NHS has the capacity to "blunt the curve in terms of the number of cases."
She said: "That actually buys time for the vaccine developers, so all of the people in isolation are going to remain vulnerable."