Picture: CHONESCHONES/123RF
Picture: CHONESCHONES/123RF

The news that global tobacco giant British American Tobacco (BAT) is working on a potential Covid-19 vaccine using its biotechnology subsidiary Kentucky BioProcessing (KBP) was met with excitement, swiftly followed by a great deal of scepticism. After all, BAT says it’s hopeful that with the right partners it could be producing a vaccine by June. Yet for other companies, like US group Moderna, whose main business is the creation of vaccines and not tobacco, the length of time to produce a vaccine is still regarded as 12 to 18 months. We asked BAT’s chief marketing officer, Kingsley Wheaton, why the group is so confident of its vaccine potential.

KW: It really hinges on the manner in which our vaccine is produced and developed. We put out that press release [about it] because we believe it is important for what we have in terms of technology and capability to be known to the world. Were we supposed to hide that from the world in this time of crisis? I think not. In terms of the timing, our system is a plant-based system. Vaccines are usually developed in chicken eggs and can take from six to nine months to develop, whereas a plant-based system is much quicker.

We take a hardy Australian varietal of tobacco and impregnate it with the antigen gene. That plant acts like a little factory and multiplies it within the plant, and then you extract the vaccine and purify it. We are able to manufacture 1-million to 3-million doses, depending on the required vaccine size, by June.

Whether our candidates have the right vaccine is an entirely different question.

That suggests you would have to partner with the pharmaceutical groups that have been working on vaccines all along?

KW: Yes, I take your point. We’re not a pharma company and the reason we own Kentucky BioProcessing goes back to 2012. We were looking at alternative uses for the tobacco crop as smoking volumes decreased. As an example, it’s a very good generator of protein, which could be used in animal feed.

Along that journey it became evident that vaccine development was possible, [but] we need help and partnership in this. Typically you would go through a three-stage clinical trial, and that might be 12 to 18 months, but there are things like emergency-use authorisation from governments in exceptional circumstances to expedite that process.

About 90 different vaccine candidates are being worked on around the world. And, in fact, we’re also talking to the department of health in the UK about constraints in capacity. We’re speaking to them about help and support, seeing whether we could establish a KBP facility in the UK that could be a replica the size of the plant in Kentucky.

Can you name the companies you’ve been talking to? I imagine companies and governments have perked up since last week’s press release.

KW: I won’t name any companies specifically — it’s still at an early stage — but the answer is a lot, actually. We’re suffering more from having a lot of interest and trying to filter our way through those offers of partnership — from the more pharmaceutical end of things all the way through to branding, packaging and distribution — so we’ve been quite overwhelmed.

Is it possible that it all could come to naught? And you have said this project would not be for profit, but clearly it excites shareholders. Should they temper their enthusiasm?

KW: We’ve been very clear: anything we do on Covid-19 is entirely not-for-profit. That being said, KBP, prior to Covid-19, was a commercial endeavour. We had worked on a vaccine for Ebola, and actually, the real vaccine programme, far outstripping our efforts on Covid-19, is all about seasonal flu. We are about to get into clinical trials.

The reason it’s hugely important is that, as you probably know, there are different strains of seasonal flu and the decision over which strain, or strains, will be used for the vaccine in a given year is generally made around February or March. Given the length of time chicken egg development takes, that means you have a vaccine available only at the end of the year. With our system you can make that decision much closer to the seasonal flu period.

Elsewhere in this magazine, your major shareholder, Reinet’s Johann Rupert, says that life after Covid-19 will bring about a huge economic reset. Is BAT financially able to weather what is likely to be the world’s worst recession since the Great Depression?

KW: BAT is a very resilient business, and at the capital markets day we had recently we said we are maintaining our full-year guidance of revenue at 3%-5% growth. And we think we can be resilient, gritty and determined. Our liquidity is in a good position. But at the same time I’ve got no doubt the world will look very different.