WRAL Investigates

Tobacco relative could hold key to coronavirus vaccine

Posted June 25, 2020 8:11 p.m. EDT

— A weed could become a life-saver against the coronavirus.

Canadian biopharmaceutical company Medicago, which has developed vaccines for the swine flu and the seasonal flu, was recruited to the U.S. by the Department of Defense to create a vaccine for a pandemic influenza. The company, which has a manufacturing plant in Research Triangle Park, has now shifted its focus to coronavirus.

Unlike traditional vaccines, which use dead viruses, Medicago essentially makes clones of the coronavirus by injecting the genetic sequence of the coronavirus into Nicotiana benthamiana, a relative of the tobacco plant.

The plant grows wild in Australia, where it's considered a weed, but Natalie Charland, a senior director at Medicago, said her company sees the plant as a manufacturer.

"We're using plants as mini factories," Charland said. "What's coming out of our plants is virus-like particles."

Medicago has a huge greenhouse in RTP to grow Nicotiana benthamiana.

"We don't even see the virus in our labs," Charland said. "For a week, these plants will make the vaccines. Then, we just harvest the leaves. We digest them to make some sort of green soup."

That green soup is then refined and turned into a vaccine, where it's already created antibodies in mice.

Human trials could start in a month, she said, with a goal to have a vaccine ready to go next year.

"Usually, the development of a new vaccine product will take at least 10 years. Now, we're trying to do that in months," she said.

More than 100 studies are underway around the world looking for a coronavirus vaccine. Most experts say the earliest one could be available would be early next year, although the Human Challenge Trial, in which healthy people are given a potential vaccine and then purposely infected, could accelerate that timeline.

Some 15,000 people have volunteered for the study around the world, but the controversial research won't happen in the U.S.

Charland says she's seen a shift in the vaccine field because of coronavirus.

"Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was more of a competition when you want to bring a product to the market. But now ... I've never seen so many collaborations," she said.

Eliminating a lot of the red tape on the federal level also is speeding up the process. But Charland said it's not fast enough for Medicago.

"We can produce clinical-grade material tomorrow if we get the go," she said.

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