PMI announces Medicago to supply up to 76 million doses of its plant-derived COVID-19 vaccine candidate

24 Oct 2020 · 5 min read

The biopharmaceutical company has reached an agreement with two departments of the Canadian government to accelerate its COVID-19 vaccine candidate efforts.

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Since 2008, Philip Morris Investments B.V. (PMIBV), a subsidiary of Philip Morris International (PMI) has been a shareholder of Medicago (in which it currently holds an approximately one-third equity stake) and has supported Medicago’s innovative plant-derived research and development focused on vaccines. The investment is consistent with PMI’s own efforts to leverage science and innovation. Japan-based Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma Corporation (MTPC) is the majority shareholder and PMIBV’s partner in Medicago. Among other things, PMIBV and MTPC will contribute additional funding to support Medicago’s efforts to develop a COVID-19 vaccine candidate. 

Medicago, a biopharmaceutical company headquartered in Quebec City, announced that it reached an agreement with Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) to supply up to 76 million doses of its vaccine candidate for COVID-19, subject to Health Canada approval. Innovation, Science & Economic Development (ISED), another department of the Canadian federal government, will contribute C$173M (or approximately $131M) to Medicago to support its ongoing vaccine development and clinical trials, and for the construction of its Quebec City manufacturing facility.

The Canada-headquartered biopharmaceutical company is using a virus-like particle (VLP) grown in Nicotiana Benthamiana, a close relative of the tobacco plant, to develop its coronavirus vaccine candidate.

Better outcomes can be achieved when governments and companies join efforts to promote shared objectives for the greater good.
André Calantzopoulos, PMI CEO

Uniting for the greater good

PMI’s CEO André Calantzopoulos said: “We welcome the collaboration announced between two departments of the Canadian government and Medicago to accelerate its efforts against COVID-19. 

“Better outcomes can be achieved when governments and companies join efforts to promote shared objectives for the greater good. We are pleased to be able to support Medicago’s work to develop, substantiate, manufacture, and make available a COVID-19 vaccine candidate. We all hope they will be successful.”

The advantages of VLPs over traditional vaccines 

Rather than working with animal products or live viruses, Medicago is disrupting the traditional approach to vaccines and therapeutics by using VLPs to develop protein-based vaccines. 

These products mimic viruses, enabling the body’s immune system to recognize them and create an immune response. But they don’t have the core genetic material of a virus, meaning they’re not infectious and can’t replicate.

Medicago’s technology requires only the genetic sequence of a viral strain, not the live virus itself—so a candidate vaccine can be produced soon after identifying the gene, allowing a quicker path to scaling up to combat a pandemic such as COVID-19.

Traditional vaccine development in chicken eggs, on the other hand, typically takes six to nine months. This is an expensive, time-consuming process—and one that is far from perfect. Mutations can result in vaccines that fail to shut down the virus.

Accelerating change 

Although the plant-based approach is relatively new, it has advanced rapidly in the past decade. 

The process is undertaken by inserting a genetic sequence into agrobacterium (a soil-based bacterium) which is drawn up by plants—in Medicago’s case, a close relative of a tobacco plant. The plant begins to produce the protein that can then be used as a vaccine. 

If the virus mutates, as scientists expect will be the case for COVID-19, they can update the production using new plants.

Leaders of innovation: About Medicago

The Quebec City company has been “doing things differently since 1999,” according to its website, adding that “With 20 years of experience and wisdom behind us, we are ready to disrupt the traditional approach to vaccines and therapeutics.”

Medicago began Phase 1 testing on volunteers in July and is anticipating that Phase 2 trials will begin in early November 2020. If Phase 2 trials are successful, Phase 3 trials are expected to begin in December 2020. 

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