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British American Tobacco working on plant-based coronavirus vaccine

Mark Sweney
Photograph: Alamy

British American Tobacco, the maker of brands including Lucky Strike, Dunhill, Rothmans and Benson & Hedges, has said it has a potential coronavirus vaccine in development using tobacco plants.

BAT has turned the vast resources usually focused on creating products that pose health risks to millions of smokers worldwide to battling the global pandemic.

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“If testing goes well, BAT is hopeful that, with the right partners and support from government agencies, between 1m and 3m doses of the vaccine could be manufactured per week, beginning in June,” the company said.

The London-listed company used the announcement to trump the positive aspects of its tobacco empire, saying that “new, fast-growing tobacco plant technology” put it ahead of others trying to develop a vaccine.

“Tobacco plants offer the potential for faster and safer vaccine development compared with conventional methods,” the company said.

BAT said its US biotech subsidiary, Kentucky BioProcessing (KBP), has moved to pre-clinical testing and that it will work on the vaccine on a not-for-profit basis.

In 2014, the tobacco firm bought KBP, which has previously worked on a treatment for Ebola. BAT said its work was “potentially safer [than conventional vaccine technology], given that tobacco plants cannot host pathogens which cause human disease”.

BAT said it had engaged with the Food and Drug Administration in the US and the Department for Health and Social Care in the UK to “offer our support and access to our research with the aim of trying to expedite the development of a vaccine for Covid-19”.

Dr David O’Reilly, the 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 we stand ready to work with governments and all stakeholders to help win the war against Covid-19.

“KBP has been exploring alternative uses of the tobacco plant for some time. One such alternative use is the development of plant-based vaccines.”

BAT said it had cloned a portion of the genetic sequence of the coronavirus and developed a potential antigen. The antigen was then inserted into tobacco plants for reproduction and, once the plants were harvested, the antigen was purified. It is now undergoing pre-clinical testing.

The tobacco firm is more typically on the receiving end of criticism from campaigning groups, including the use young and attractive models to entice younger demographics to try e-cigarettes and vaping technology.