British American Tobacco Announces 'Significant Breakthrough' in Development of Potential Coronavirus Vaccine

British American Tobacco (BAT) has said it has made a "significant breakthrough" on a potential vaccine for COVID-19 using tobacco plants.

The company, which makes Lucky Strike cigarettes, announced on Wednesday that its U.S. biotech unit Kentucky BioProcessing (KBP), based in Owensboro, Kentucky, was working on the development of the vaccine on a not-for-profit basis.

The company said in a news release that it could produce between 1 million and 3 million doses per week starting in June with backing from the partners and government agencies.

KBP recently cloned a portion of COVID-19's genetic sequence to create an antigen, which induce an immune response in the body and produce antibodies, BAT said.

BAT vaccine
Tobacco plants being cultivated for vaccine development at British American Tobbaco's U.S. bio-tech subsidiary in Owensboro, Kentucky. British American Tobacco

The company said the antigen was inserted into tobacco plants for reproduction and once the plants were harvested, the antigen was purified. The vaccine is now undergoing pre-clinical testing.

BAT says using its "fast-growing tobacco plant technology" has several advantages over conventional vaccine production methods.

It says it is "potentially safer" because tobacco plants can't host pathogens which cause human disease and vaccine KBP is developing remains stable at room temperature, unlike conventional vaccines which often require refrigeration.

"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," Dr. David O'Reilly, director of Scientific Research at BAT, said in a statement. "We fully align with the United Nations plea, for a whole-of-society approach to combat global problems. KBP has been exploring alternative uses of the tobacco plant for some time. One such alternative use is the development of plant-based vaccines. We are committed to contributing to the global effort to halt the spread of COVID-19 using this technology."

Dr. O'Reilly added that the company is working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and seeking guidance on the next steps to take. He said BAT was also engaged with U.K. health authorities to expedite the development of the vaccine.

KBP made headlines in 2014 when it said it had created an effective treatment against Ebola called ZMapp with California-based Mapp Biopharmaceuticals. But the experimental drug was dropped from clinical trials after other treatments proved more effective.

Newsweek has contacted the FDA for comment about BAT's potential COVID-19 vaccine.

On Tuesday, FDA Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn said the agency's staff are working with all sectors in the fight against COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

"Quickly after the emergence of this virus, we began working directly with federal health partners, academia and industry to advance medical countermeasures against COVID-19," Hahn said.

"Our staff continues to work across all sectors to expedite the development of numerous, innovative potential prevention and treatment approaches. We are also looking at pragmatic and expedited ways to make these products available to patients, while still ensuring the FDA's standards are met."

This infographic, provided by Statista, shows the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. by state as of April 1.

This infographic shows the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases by state.
This infographic shows the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases by state.

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

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Medical advice

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  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask and glove usage

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  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
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  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks. Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.
  • Regularly washing bare hands is more effective against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves.
  • The COVID-19 virus can still be picked up on rubber gloves and transmitted by touching your face.