Medicago’s breakthrough, ties to Big Tobacco and warnings a pandemic was coming
Under a winter’s snow cover on the outskirts of Quebec City, a high-tech greenhouse, set at a balmy 23 C, is growing row after row of a weed that could help end the coronavirus pandemic.It’s called Nicotiana benthamiana, a relative of the tobacco plant, native to Australia, and it is a key to biopharmaceutical company Medicago’s COVID-19 vaccine.
Medicago is the leading Canadian-based contender to produce a vaccine, with an agreement to provide the federal government with 76 million doses if approved for use.Medicago’s vaulting onto the mainstage could provide a breakthrough for vaccine science. It involves a new technology that’s rapid and nimble, and a vaccine that can be stored at normal fridge temperatures, of 2 C to 8 C, unlike the two other vaccines currently in circulation, which each require frozen or ultra-cold frozen storage.
While it’s possible the company may emerge as the new wunderkind of the Canadian biotech sector, it wasn’t without adversity.For years, Medicago warned that Canada needed to prepare itself for a pandemic and lobbied government officials for funding to build a domestic manufacturing site for a vaccine. But Medicago didn’t get what it needed from the federal government until after the COVID-19 crisis struck.
On top of that, in the middle of a pandemic, Medicago is restructuring.In July, it announced plans to distance itself from a significant shareholder, Philip Morris International, which owns about one-third of the company — a controversial association with Big Tobacco that has been the source of roadblocks and criticism. Then in December, the company replaced its president and CEO.
But despite this, Medicago hasn’t lost sight of its goal: a vaccine.In phase one of its clinical trials, 100 per cent of people who received its COVID-19 vaccine developed significant antibody responses with no severe adverse effects. Phase two clinical trials are currently wrapping up and phase three is expected to begin later this month. It will involve 30,000 people in 11 countries — including Canada — and will ultimately determine if the vaccine protects people from COVID-19. The vaccine requires two doses, 21 days apart, and if approved by Health Canada, could be in the arms of Canadians by the second half of this year.