Canadian firm announces breakthrough in possible plant-based Covid-19 vaccine

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Close-up medical syringe with a vaccine.

BY CLEMENT DIONGLAY

WHEN the first case of 2019 novel coronavirus disease (Covid-19) was reported in China in late December last year, no one expected that it will spread far and wide, and become a global pandemic.

As more and more confirmed cases and deaths were recorded in China and many other parts of the world, including the Philippines, the search for a promising Covid-19 medicine and vaccine became the most important task for many scientists and researchers.

Canadian biotech company Medicago has made a breakthrough in the fight against the Covid-19.

In a news release on March 12, the Quebec City-based company announced that it has developed a possible Covid-19 vaccine candidate using its proprietary plant-based technology—a set of applications, tools, processes, or systems that are property of an individual or business.

The announcement came after Medicago scientists produced a virus-like particle (VLP) of the coronavirus just 20 days after receiving the SARS-CoV-2 (virus causing the Covid-19 disease) genetic sequence.

VLPs are molecules that closely resemble viruses, but do not contain any viral genetic material so they are noninfectious.

Vaccine development is a long process, and the production of the VLP is the first step in developing a vaccine for Covid-19 which will now undergo preclinical trials to test its safety and effectiveness.

Once this process is completed, Medicago said they will begin human trials of the vaccine as early as July or August 2020 following approvals from Health Canada and other agencies.

Medicago CEO Dr. Bruce Clark said that if the vaccine is successful it could be available to the market by November 2021.

If the company is given the green light, it could produce as many as 10 million doses a month, according to Clark.

The company’s first product, a seasonal recombinant quadrivalent VLP vaccine for active immunization against influenza, is now under review by Health Canada following the completion of a robust safety and efficacy clinical program involving over 25,000 patients.

Medicago’s plant-based technology is a potential alternative to traditional egg-based production systems.

Traditional vaccine production requires using a lot of eggs to grow the virus.

However, this practice is not only expensive but it also takes a long time and is far from perfect.

Egg-based vaccines are also risky to children and adults who have an allergy to eggs.

It should be noted that Medicago does not work with live viruses but uses plants instead.

Its technology inserts a genetic sequence into the soil bacterium Agrobacterium, which is taken up by plants. The plant begins to produce the protein that can then be used as a vaccine.

If the virus begins to mutate, as is expected for Covid-19, they can just update the production using new plants.

“That’s the difference between us and egg-based methods,” Clark said. “We go directly to producing the vaccine or the antibody without having to propagate the virus.”

Using plants and genetically engineered Agrobacterium works faster than eggs and also makes the vaccine much easier to produce at scale.

Genetic engineering makes possible for scientists to engineer living organisms from simple yeasts to more complex plants to produce specific pharmaceuticals, such as antibodies and vaccines.

Biopharmaceuticals are drug products produced in living systems and used for therapeutic or diagnostic purposes or as dietary supplements. Using plants to express proteins is more practical, safe, and economical as plant systems allow production with low start-up costs.

The first full-size native protein expressed in plants was human serum albumin, produced in 1990 in transgenic tobacco and potato plants.

Besides tobacco, cereal grains, such as rice, wheat, barley, and corn are also being used to produce plant-derived pharmaceuticals.

Potato was the first system to be developed for vaccine production, followed by tomatoes, bananas, carrots, lettuce, corn, alfalfa, spinach, white clover, and thale-cress as alternative production hosts.

The Covid-19 is an infectious disease caused by a new virus that is worse than the flu.

It has been declared by the World Health Organization as a pandemic and particularly puts some people at a higher risk of getting very sick, including older adults, pregnant women, and people with underlying medical conditions including heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, asthma and HIV.

As of March 19, 2020, the Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracker reports that there are 218,743 confirmed cases of Covid-19 diagnosed across the globe. Of these, there have been 8,810 recorded deaths and 84,113 recoveries.

In the Philippines, the Department of Health (DOH) has recorded 202 confirmed cases of coronavirus Covid-19, with nine deaths and five recoveries as of March 18.

NOTE: The article was first published in BusinessMirror