From being dubbed peddlers of death to creators of vaccines that could potentially save lives, Big Tobacco has seen a turnaround in its image. Two tobacco companies, British American Tobacco Plc (BAT) and Philip Morris International Plc (PMI), have joined the vaccine race against COVID-19 and are developing tobacco-based vaccines against the disease.

"Vaccine development is challenging and complex work, but we believe we have made a significant break-through with our tobacco plant technology platform and stand ready to work with Governments and all stakeholders to help win the war against COVID-19," said Dr. David O'Reilly, BAT's director of scientific research, in a statement.

Tobacco
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Faster than traditional methods

London-based BAT is the manufacturer of popular cigarette brands such as Benson & Hedges, Dunhill, Lucky Strike and Rothmans. Through its US biotech subsidiary, Kentucky BioProcessing (KBP), BAT developed the tobacco-based vaccine which is in the pre-clinical testing phase. While KBP is a commercial operation, the vaccine will be a non-profit endeavour.

Stressing on the potential that tobacco plants presented in the development of the vaccine, the statement said: "Tobacco plants offer the potential for faster and safer vaccine development compared to conventional methods." This is because tobacco plants cannot host pathogens that cause diseases in human beings.

Dunhill
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KBP cloned a section of the SARS-CoV-2 virus's genetic sequence which resulted in the development of an antigen. Antigens are foreign substances that cause the body to mount an immune response by producing counteractive antibodies. The synthesized antigen was inserted into tobacco plants for reproduction. After the plants were harvested, the antigen was purified.

O'Reilly also said that KBP is in talks with US Food and Drug Administration, UK's Department for Health and Social Care, and US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) seeking guidance and offering their research to accelerate the development of a vaccine against the disease.

From Marlboro Man to corona killer

PMI is most famously known for its popular US brand of cigarettes Marlboro. The vaccine was developed by Canada-based biopharmaceutical company Medicago, which is partially owned by PMI.

Marlboro
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The PMI approach employs virus-like particles (VLP) cultivated in a close relative of the tobacco plants. These plant-based vaccines mimic the actions of a virus, which signals the body's immune system to launch an immune response. Thereby, diminishing the virus' capacity to replicate or infect.

In a statement, PMI highlighted the advantage of a plant-based vaccine in the event of mutations within the SARS-CoV-2. "If the virus begins to mutate, as is expected for COVID-19, they can update the production( of antigens) using new plants," said the statement.