BAT claims Covid-19 vaccine breakthrough using tobacco plants

By Holly Williams, PA Deputy City Editor
·3-min read

Lucky Strike and Benson & Hedges maker British American Tobacco (BAT) has become the latest firm to offer hope of a Covid-19 vaccine after revealing a breakthrough with its tobacco plant technology.

The UK-headquartered group said its US-based biotech business has been working on a potential vaccine for Covid-19, which it believes could offer up to three million doses a week from June.

BAT said the vaccine is now in pre-clinical testing and has the potential to offer a safer and faster way to develop vaccines than traditional methods.

It is being developed by its US firm Kentucky BioProcessing (KBP) using tobacco plant technology.

BAT said if successful and with the “right partners and support from government agencies”, it could manufacture between one million and three million doses a week, though it will need to get through rigorous testing before being approved for use in humans.

The group is currently in talks with the US Food and Drug Administration and the UK Department of Health and Social Care with hopes to partner with government agencies to bring the vaccine to clinical studies.

Dr David O’Reilly, director of scientific research at BAT, said: “Vaccine development is challenging and complex work, but we believe we have made a significant breakthrough with our tobacco plant technology platform and stand ready to work with governments and all stakeholders to help win the war against Covid-19.

“We fully align with the United Nations plea, for a whole-of-society approach to combat global problems.”

The firm said KBP – bought by its US subsidiary Reynolds American Inc in 2014 – has been looking at alternative uses of tobacco plants for some time, including plant-based vaccines.

It was one of the few firms that helped develop an effective treatment for Ebola in 2014 and has recently been working with the US government on seasonal influenza vaccines.

It added that KBP would be developing the coronavirus vaccine on a not-for-profit basis.

Tobacco plant technology is thought to have advantages over traditional development methods as it can produce initial vaccines in the plants in just six weeks, instead of months.

It is also possibly safer because tobacco plants cannot host so-called pathogens that cause human disease.

And they have the potential to deliver an effective immune response in a single dose, according to BAT.

“We are committed to contributing to the global effort to halt the spread of Covid-19 using this technology,” added Dr O’Reilly.

Analysts at Jefferies said the announcement by BAT was “somewhat surprising”, but it highlights the scientific might of tobacco giants.

The move is also likely to raise eyebrows, given increasing scientific evidence that smoking cigarettes increases the risk of serious illness caused by coronavirus.

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found smokers are around one-and-a-half times more likely to progress to the severe stage of coronavirus than non-smokers.

But Owen Bennett at Jefferies said BAT’s vaccine news “illustrates the scientific sophistication that is present within BAT and arguably the wider big tobacco space”.