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
The Social Distancing Traffic Light
social distancing
Coronavirus
The Social Distancing Traffic Light
Assessing your COVID-19 risk for everyday activities will be key to some kind of normalcy. Now, researchers want to add nuance to social distancing.

Assessing your COVID-19 risk for everyday activities will be key to some kind of normalcy. Now, researchers want to add nuance to social distancing.

Public Health
Singapore to Give All Residents Wearables for Contact Tracing
Contact Tracing
Public Health
Singapore to Give All Residents Wearables for Contact Tracing
Singapore is testing the ability of wearables for contact tracing to prevent an increase in coronavirus infections as it lifts lockdown restrictions.

Singapore is testing the ability of wearables for contact tracing to prevent an increase in coronavirus infections as it lifts lockdown restrictions.

Public Health
Where Can You Get Tested for the Coronavirus?
Get Tested for the Coronavirus
Public Health
Where Can You Get Tested for the Coronavirus?
Everything you need to know to get tested for the coronavirus, including COVID-19 testing requirements and resources to help you find testing sites.

Everything you need to know to get tested for the coronavirus, including COVID-19 testing requirements and resources to help you find testing sites.

Healthcare
New Tool Seeks to Protect Those Reusing Coronavirus Masks
Coronavirus Masks
Healthcare
New Tool Seeks to Protect Those Reusing Coronavirus Masks
A group of researchers launched a website that teaches healthcare workers everything they need to know about reusing coronavirus masks as safely as possible.

A group of researchers launched a website that teaches healthcare workers everything they need to know about reusing coronavirus masks as safely as possible.

Public Health
New Study Boosts Case for At-Home Coronavirus Tests
at-home coronavirus tests
Public Health
New Study Boosts Case for At-Home Coronavirus Tests
A new study eliminates one major argument against at-home coronavirus tests: that patients won’t be able to collect usable samples themselves.

A new study eliminates one major argument against at-home coronavirus tests: that patients won’t be able to collect usable samples themselves.