Big Tobacco to the rescue: Will BAT’s vaccine smoke Covid-19?

What’s happening? The US FDA has approved trials by British American Tobacco’s (BAT) biotechnology operation Kentucky BioProcessing (KBP) on a Covid-19 vaccine made using tobacco plants, which can be kept at room temperature and which only takes six weeks to produce. KBP first created a potential antigen then transplanted it into tobacco plants to reproduce, with the proteins KBP needs for the vaccine being harvested after six weeks on the plant. KBP will now run clinical trials with 180 volunteers. Canadian company Medicago is also investigating a plant-based vaccine for flu.

Why does this matter? While the race to create Covid-19 vaccines has been led by pharmaceutical companies, Big Tobacco has also seen this as an opportunity to muscle in – and it’s not just BAT.

Quebec-based Medicago, which is one-third owned by Philip Morris International, is also on the case. Controversially, the Canadian government has invested CAD134.5m ($105m) into Medicago’s vaccine development. This was heavily criticised by the tobacco control community, which called the move “deeply concerning” and pointed out there were many other vaccine candidates the government could have backed.

Big Tobacco has long been seeking ways to diversify to survive against ever-mounting evidence that smoking causes serious diseases and costs millions of lives annually. It’s also under attack from increasingly tougher anti-smoking measures being implemented across the globe and the dwindling number of the consumers of its products. One approach has been to produce nicotine products claimed to be safer alternatives to smoking or for smoking cessation, but this has been met with criticism from health researchers who suggest that tobacco companies making such a move are still depending on nicotine-addicted individuals for revenue.

Transforming into pharmaceutical-like companies has been another approach, and it’s worth noting the tobacco plant does have potential in drug development. A 1989 study showed it was able to produce functional antibodies and many investigations into its medical use have been taking place since then. A more recent example is the EU-funded NEWCOTIANAproject, which aims to breed new varieties of tobacco plants to produce compounds for use as vaccines and antibodies alongside other medical and cosmetic products.

There’s also the possibility for tobacco to be used as a source of biofuels, something that’s being explored by Project Solaris, which is also being co-funded by the EU. Its aim is to use a specifically bred ultra-low nicotine high-yield tobacco plant for use as jet engine fuel.

If Big Tobacco is to be trusted as a source of medicines and fuels in the future, the industry needs to work hard to blow away the – ahem – cloud of smoke that raises concerns among the health care community and deters investors.

Will chipping in on Covid-19 vaccines help transform the industry’s image from killer to rescuer? That remains to be seen, but even if the vaccines prove effective in trials and receive regulatory approval, their use may be considered as somewhat controversial given the impact tobacco-related products have on global health care systems.

Lateral thought from Curation – It’s worth paying attention to the high-level theme here of companies repurposing potentially problematic products to develop more ESG-friendly offerings. The pandemic has offered opportunity for this: Scottish brewer BrewDog, for example, is reportedly in talks with the UK government to turn its shuttered bars into vaccination centres. The brewer also pivoted to making hand sanitiser in March amid a shortage during the early stages of the virus outbreak.

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