Skip to main content
Move the World.
Tobacco-Based COVID-19 Vaccine

Lead Image Courtesy of Kentucky BioProcessing

A tobacco-based COVID-19 vaccine just secured FDA approval for human testing.

While the FDA has already authorized coronavirus vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna, the tobacco vaccine could be a better shot for people in many parts of the world — and together, they could all help end the pandemic.

Two Vaccines Are Not Enough

There are several types of coronavirus vaccines, and the ones Pfizer and Moderna developed are both mRNA-based.

This kind of vaccine is new — the FDA had never approved an mRNA vaccine before Pfizer's — and they work by delivering a bit of genetic code that triggers an immune response.

The efficacy of the vaccines has been remarkable, but neither is going to be able to end the pandemic on its own.

For one, both vaccines must be stored and shipped at very cold temperatures — that requirement will put them out of reach in many parts of the world.

Additionally, while mRNA vaccines are easier to scale than some more common types, even Pfizer and Moderna combined can't produce enough doses for everybody — at least not next year.

The tobacco-based COVID-19 vaccine under development by British American Tobacco (BAT) could be an ideal complement to the other vaccines.

BAT's Tobacco-Based COVID-19 Vaccine

To create their tobacco-based COVID-19 vaccine, BAT researchers started by using a cloned bit of the coronavirus's genetic code to produce an antigen — that's the part of the virus that triggers an immune response.

They then insert just the antigen into tobacco plants, where it reproduces as the plant grows, making more antigens that can be harvested from the plants and used to make a vaccine.

The tobacco-based COVID-19 vaccine could be useful in places without a reliable cold chain.

If it works, the advantages are huge: it can be produced rapidly and cheaply, thanks to fast-growing tobacco plants.

The researchers say they can grow, harvest, and process enough of the coronavirus antigen for 3 million vaccine doses in about six weeks — it would take months to create that many using more conventional methods for antigen production, according to BAT.

The company also says its coronavirus vaccine has the potential to be stored at room temperature — that would make it a viable alternative to mRNA vaccines in places that lack a reliable cold chain.

Before any of that can happen, though, BAT needs to find out whether its vaccine is safe and effective in humans.

To that end, the company plans to begin enrolling 180 healthy adults in its phase 1 trial. That trial will test two dose sizes of the tobacco-based COVID-19 vaccine, and the researchers expect to have results from the study in mid-2021.

Even if the plant-based vaccine arrives later than others, if it works, the technology has the potential to revolutionize future vaccine production, just like the mRNA vaccines.

We'd love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].

Up Next

If you want to understand a problem, talk to the people working on solutions. Join us as we meet the people and explore the ideas on the frontlines of an unprecedented global response.

Coronavirus
Updated Coronavirus Vaccine List: Where We Stand Today
Coronavirus Vaccine List
Coronavirus
Updated Coronavirus Vaccine List: Where We Stand Today
A regularly updated coronavirus vaccine list highlighting the candidates closest to receiving approval from regulators.

A regularly updated coronavirus vaccine list highlighting the candidates closest to receiving approval from regulators.

Public Health
Big Tobacco Announces "Breakthrough" in Plant-Based Coronavirus Vaccine
Plant-Based Coronavirus Vaccine
Public Health
Big Tobacco Announces "Breakthrough" in Plant-Based Coronavirus Vaccine
A plant-based coronavirus vaccine developed by a subsidiary of British American Tobacco is now undergoing pre-clinical testing.

A plant-based coronavirus vaccine developed by a subsidiary of British American Tobacco is now undergoing pre-clinical testing.

Public Health
How to Make 100 Million Doses of Coronavirus Vaccine in a Year
coronavirus vaccine
Public Health
How to Make 100 Million Doses of Coronavirus Vaccine in a Year
Creating a new vaccine is slow and expensive. One biotech firm thinks a “plug-and-play” vaccine could change that.

Creating a new vaccine is slow and expensive. One biotech firm thinks a “plug-and-play” vaccine could change that.

Dispatches
Why Don’t Vaccines Work as Well in Poor Countries?
vaccines in third world countries
Dispatches
Why Don’t Vaccines Work as Well in Poor Countries?
Our best tool for preventing disease is the least effective in the places where it's most needed.

Our best tool for preventing disease is the least effective in the places where it's most needed.

Coronavirus
Can The Common Cold Help Battle COVID-19?
Can The Common Cold Help Battle COVID-19?
Coronavirus
Can The Common Cold Help Battle COVID-19?
The common cold can be caused by a coronavirus. New research suggests the immune response it causes may help protect against COVID-19.

The common cold can be caused by a coronavirus. New research suggests the immune response it causes may help protect against COVID-19.

Public Health
Chinese Coronavirus Vaccine Advances to Next Trial Phase
Chinese Coronavirus Vaccine
Public Health
Chinese Coronavirus Vaccine Advances to Next Trial Phase
CanSino Bio’s Ad5-nCoV was the first Chinese coronavirus vaccine to be tested in humans. Now it’s the first in the world to enter Phase II trials.

CanSino Bio’s Ad5-nCoV was the first Chinese coronavirus vaccine to be tested in humans. Now it’s the first in the world to enter Phase II trials.

Public Health
Scientists Analyze Sewage to Track Coronavirus Infections
Track Coronavirus Infections
Public Health
Scientists Analyze Sewage to Track Coronavirus Infections
Scientists are attempting to track coronavirus infections by analyzing sewage for signs of the virus’ genetic material.

Scientists are attempting to track coronavirus infections by analyzing sewage for signs of the virus’ genetic material.

Volunteerism
Coronavirus Volunteers Are Using Tech to Help Their Communities
coronavirus volunteers
Volunteerism
Coronavirus Volunteers Are Using Tech to Help Their Communities
Groups looking for ways to help during COVID-19 are turning to tech, using websites, spreadsheets, and online forms to mobilize coronavirus volunteers.

Groups looking for ways to help during COVID-19 are turning to tech, using websites, spreadsheets, and online forms to mobilize coronavirus volunteers.