Canada has become the first country in the world to approve a plant-based vaccine for COVID-19. Delivered by the Quebec-based pharmaceuticals company Medicago, the prophylactic foregoes the need for animal products in manufacturing a vaccine to defend against the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen.
The tobacco plant’s close relative Nicotiana benthamiana is behind the solution, being used as a living factory to churn out virus-like particles. These are able to mimic SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein, effectively acting as a dress rehearsal for the disease so that when the real deal makes an appearance the body is primed to defend itself.
After the plant has cooked up its COVID-19 mimickers, they’re removed from its leaves, purified, and combined with an adjuvant formulated by GlaxoSmithKline to create the injectable treatment.
As well as being a plant-based vaccine, the novel pharmaceutical represents an opportunity to increase COVID-19 shot availability globally as it only needs to be cooled to between 2-8°C (35.6-46.4°F), an easy requirement compared to the extremely cold conditions mRNA vaccines must be stored in to remain viable.
Representing the world’s first plant-based vaccine for COVID-19, the new treatment has been approved for use in adults aged 18 to 64 with an efficacy of 71 percent in preventing COVID-19 infection. However, there are currently insufficient data to approve its use for people aged 65 and older.
What’s so special about plant-based vaccines?
Creating the therapeutic proteins needed for vaccines has historically relied on animal products including chicken eggs or mammalian cell cultures. Molecular farming, as plant-based vaccine production is known, was first floated back in 1986 and went on to create a treatment for Gaucher disease approved for human use in 2012.
Plant-based vaccines may have wider appeal among vaccine-hesitant populations and propose novel ways of receiving the treatment including edible drugs. They may also go some way to quieting misinformation regarding the use of fetal tissue in the manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines.
“It is true that decades ago, scientists decided to use fetal tissue to start the cell lines we use to test drugs today,” wrote infectious disease expert and practicing Catholic, Dr James Lawler, in an explainer last year. Something which applies to the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which uses a cell line derived from a fetus in 1983.
“However, the description of ongoing modern fetal tissue harvesting to create vaccines is dishonest sensationalism,” concluded Lawler.
The mRNA vaccines have also been received with some suspicion over their alleged ability to alter a person’s DNA, something which is, for the record, completely untrue.
It’s hoped the plant-based vaccine alternative may improve vaccine uptake among people who have avoided the existing options for these reasons.
[H/T: The Scientist]