GlaxoSmithKline headquarters in Brentford, Britain. Picture: REUTERS/MATTHEW CHILDS
GlaxoSmithKline headquarters in Brentford, Britain. Picture: REUTERS/MATTHEW CHILDS

London — GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is collaborating on an experimental Covid-19 vaccine with Medicago, a biotechnology company partly owned by tobacco giant Philip Morris International.

The partnership will combine Medicago’s plant-based production platform with GSK’s adjuvants — substances that enhance the body’s immune response — the companies said on Tuesday. Human testing is due to start in mid-July, and the companies aim to make the vaccine available in the first half of 2021, if it’s successful.

The UK drugmaker is contributing its adjuvant technology to multiple partnerships rather than developing its own vaccine candidate. The University of Oxford, working with AstraZeneca, as well as Moderna and CanSino Biologics are among institutions and companies with programmes already in human testing as governments look for a way to end the coronavirus pandemic.

Medicago uses a virus-like particle grown in a close relative of the tobacco plant. Plant-based vaccines mimic viruses and allow the body’s immune system to recognise them and create an immune response, without being able to infect or replicate. Cigarette maker British American Tobacco has been working on a plant-based vaccine via a biotech subsidiary, Kentucky BioProcessing.

Adding GSK’s system to Medicago’s technology could allow the companies to manufacture about 100-million doses by the end of 2021, the companies said. By the end of 2023, a large facility under construction in Quebec City, Canada, could deliver as many as 1-billion doses annually.

GSK is betting the agreement could pay off in other ways, too.

“This plant-based technology also shows promise beyond Covid-19 and has the potential to help prevent other infectious diseases,” Thomas Breuer, the chief medical officer of GSK’s vaccines unit, said in the statement.

GSK has said its adjuvants could decrease the amount of vaccine each person needs for immunisation, thereby extending supplies. One of its partners, Paris-based Sanofi, expects to start a study compressing the early and middle stages of clinical trials in September. GSK’s collaboration with Clover Biopharmaceuticals started tests in humans last month.

The British company said in May it plans to produce 1-billion doses of an adjuvant in 2021 to support the development of multiple Covid-19 vaccine candidates.

Medicago is jointly owned by Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma and Philip Morris. The tobacco company has signaled that it’s willing to evaluate offers for its holding from groups that may be better suited to help Medicago in its next phase, according to the statement.


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