British cigarette giant claims it has developed a coronavirus vaccine

Benson and Hedges cigarette giant British American Tobacco claims it has developed a coronavirus vaccine made from tobacco plants and can manufacture 3million a week starting in June

  • British American Tobacco (BAT) said it can make up to 3million vaccines a week
  • Claims it can have vaccines ready to go by June with help from UK Government
  • BAT has found coronavirus antigen and is ‘growing vaccine in tobacco plants’
  • Coronavirus symptoms: what are they and should you see a doctor?

The maker of Benson & Hedges cigarettes claims it has developed a coronavirus vaccine made from tobacco plants

The maker of Benson & Hedges and Lucky Strike cigarettes claims it has developed a coronavirus vaccine made from tobacco plants. 

British American Tobacco (BAT) said it can manufacture up to three million doses a week starting in June if it gets support from the UK Government. 

The unproven vaccine is currently being tested on animals. But BAT is calling on Whitehall to fast-track the vaccine through rigorous human trials which could otherwise take the best part of a year and make the June date impossible.

BAT said it had pivoted its vast resources – the company is worth £65.5billion – to fighting the pandemic.

The London-headquartered firm added that it would sell the tests to the Government ‘at cost’, meaning without making any profit. 

Tobacco firms are currently barred from doing deals with governments under World Health Organisation rules, but BAT said it planned to contact the WHO.  

British American Tobacco (BAT) said it can manufacture up to 3million doses a week starting in June if it gets support from the UK Government 

The vaccine is being developed by BAT’s subsidiary firm Kentucky BioProcessing (KBP) in the US, using tobacco plant technology

The company said it had approached the US Food and Drug Administration and UK’s Department of Health and Social Care about its vaccine.

It hopes to hopes to partner with the government agencies to bring the vaccine to clinical studies this month.

In a statement it said: ‘If testing goes well, BAT is hopeful that, with the right partners and support from government agencies, between 1million and 3million doses of the vaccine could be manufactured per week, beginning in June.’ 

The vaccine is being developed by BAT’s subsidiary firm Kentucky BioProcessing (KBP) in the US, using tobacco plant technology.

KBP has previous experience of fighting outbreaks. It helped develop an effective drug for Ebola in 2014, called ZMapp. 

BAT said KBP researchers have managed to clone a portion of the coronavirus’s genetic sequence and developed a potential antigen.

An antigen is any substance which the body recognises as an outsider and attacks with the immune system

By injecting someone with a coronavirus antigen – whether an entire one or a part – can trick the body into producing the immune response it would need to fight off the virus for real. 

This would mean that the body would know how to tackle the virus if someone caught the illness in the future, meaning they could get rid of it before developing symptoms. 

Dr Melanie Saville, from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), said a coronavirus vaccine could be ready by January


Scientists first need to generate an antigen – a substance which helps produce antibodies to fight viruses. 

The antigen is then injected into plants for reproduction. 

Once the plants are harvested in several weeks the vaccine can be extracted and used in trials on animals.

The WHO says plant-derived vaccines have several advantages over conventional methods – including that they can be produced cheaply in very high amounts.

Traditional vaccines see antigens manufactured in cultures of bacterial cells or live yeast, which need to be refrigerated and take months to accumulate.

Plant-based vaccines take just weeks to grow and can survive at room temperature – making them less expensive to create. 

With live vaccines, there is always a chance vaccine becomes contaminated and hosts so-called pathogens, which cause human disease.

The WHO says the likelihood of this happening in plants is ‘almost negligible’, making them potentially safer.

Kentucky BioProcessing has inserted the antigen into tobacco plants where the living structures of the plants will help it to grow and reproduce.

Once harvested, the antigens are extracted and purified and inserted into the body as a vaccine.

The WHO says plant-derived vaccines have several advantages over conventional methods. 

Traditional vaccines see antigens manufactured in cultures of bacterial cells or yeast, which need to be refrigerated and take months to accumulate.

Plant-based vaccines take just weeks to grow and can survive at room temperature – making them less expensive to create. 

With live vaccines, there is always a chance it can become contaminated and hosts so-called pathogens, which cause human disease.

The WHO says the likelihood of this happening in plants, however, is ‘almost negligible’, making them potentially safer.

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

‘We fully align with the United Nations plea, for a whole-of-society approach to combat global problems.

‘We are committed to contributing to the global effort to halt the spread of COVID-19 using this technology.’ 

Professor Julian Ma, a virus expert at St George’s University of London, said it was highly unlikely the vaccine would be ready any time soon.

He said: ‘The press release by KBP reports an important milestone for the company, but they are still a long way from making a vaccine. 

‘Importantly, it still needs to be determined how safe their vaccine will be and how potent in inducing protective immunity in humans. 

‘The manufacturing system is really fast, hugely scalable and potentially cheaper than the conventional manufacturing systems we use for vaccines (for example, eggs for influenza virus vaccine). 

‘In particularly it is a technology that might make vaccines more affordable and accessible for people in low and middle income countries.

‘This is important for a disease which is spreading to every country in the world. It will be no use making an expensive vaccine, which is only accessible by rich people in the first world.’

It comes after the British doctor overseeing the international hunt for a coronavirus vaccine said a jab could be ready for health workers by January next year. 

Dr Melanie Saville, from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), said a vaccine could be rolled out under an ’emergency protocol’ before it has been officially licensed for use.

She said there would need to be a ‘prioritisation for those who need it most’ which would likely see NHS workers and those most vulnerable getting it first.

However she told the Daily Mail that British citizens in isolation would ‘remain vulnerable’ until a vaccine is developed.

The Oslo-based CEPI is funding eight COVID-19 vaccine trials across the world. It has just received £210million in UK foreign aid money – making Britain the world’s largest donor.

Last night, major US healthcare firm Johnson & Johnson announced that it had a potential vaccine that could be available for emergency use in early 2021.

But it is still behind Boston-based biotech firm Moderna, funded by CEPI, which began human testing earlier this month.

Another potential vaccine is being developed at the University of Oxford.

Dr Saville said: ‘Normally vaccine development can take maybe ten years, maybe 20 years. What we are trying to do is reduce that to a 12-18 month time frame.’

She said the vaccine could be available to some as soon as January.

‘If all were to go well, we could anticipate there should be a vaccine that could be used more widely, at least under some kind of emergency authorisation process’, she said.

Such a process would see vaccines that have had clinical trials and are deemed safe by scientists rolled out before they have been officially approved for use.

Dr Saville said the World Health Organisation and international organisation Gavi, which receives £300million in UK aid a year, will play a critical role in determining which countries need it first and who exactly.

The objective is to get millions of doses ready but crucially that will still leave billions waiting.

A vaccine could be rolled out under an ’emergency protocol’ before it has been officially licensed for use

She added: ‘At the beginning it takes a while to make the very large doses of vaccines that are needed.

‘That is why there really does need to be a prioritisation for those who need it most, with a view that the capacity will be developed so that it will be very widely available.’

This could be health care workers ‘who obviously it is very important to keep them healthy and safe’, or other vulnerable groups, she said.

Asked if there was a danger of rolling out the vaccines before they have been officially approved, Dr Saville said: ‘Always safety is paramount with vaccines so it is always important to make sure you are following volunteers in clinical trials carefully.’

She said lockdown and social distancing measures were important so the NHS has the capacity to ‘blunt the curve in terms of the number of cases’.

She said: ‘That actually buys time for the vaccine developers, so all of the people in isolation are going to remain vulnerable.’


What is the coronavirus? 

A coronavirus is a type of virus which can cause illness in animals and people. Viruses break into cells inside their host and use them to reproduce itself and disrupt the body’s normal functions. Coronaviruses are named after the Latin word ‘corona’, which means crown, because they are encased by a spiked shell which resembles a royal crown.

The coronavirus from Wuhan is one which has never been seen before this outbreak. It has been named SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The name stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2.

Experts say the bug, which has killed around one in 50 patients since the outbreak began in December, is a ‘sister’ of the SARS illness which hit China in 2002, so has been named after it.

The disease that the virus causes has been named COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.

Dr Helena Maier, from the Pirbright Institute, said: ‘Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that infect a wide range of different species including humans, cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and wild animals. 

‘Until this new coronavirus was identified, there were only six different coronaviruses known to infect humans. Four of these cause a mild common cold-type illness, but since 2002 there has been the emergence of two new coronaviruses that can infect humans and result in more severe disease (Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronaviruses). 

‘Coronaviruses are known to be able to occasionally jump from one species to another and that is what happened in the case of SARS, MERS and the new coronavirus. The animal origin of the new coronavirus is not yet known.’ 

The first human cases were publicly reported from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where approximately 11million people live, after medics first started publicly reporting infections on December 31.

By January 8, 59 suspected cases had been reported and seven people were in critical condition. Tests were developed for the new virus and recorded cases started to surge.

The first person died that week and, by January 16, two were dead and 41 cases were confirmed. The next day, scientists predicted that 1,700 people had become infected, possibly up to 7,000. 

Where does the virus come from?

According to scientists, the virus almost certainly came from bats. Coronaviruses in general tend to originate in animals – the similar SARS and MERS viruses are believed to have originated in civet cats and camels, respectively.

The first cases of COVID-19 came from people visiting or working in a live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed down for investigation.

Although the market is officially a seafood market, other dead and living animals were being sold there, including wolf cubs, salamanders, snakes, peacocks, porcupines and camel meat. 

A study by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, published in February 2020 in the scientific journal Nature, found that the genetic make-up virus samples found in patients in China is 96 per cent identical to a coronavirus they found in bats.

However, there were not many bats at the market so scientists say it was likely there was an animal which acted as a middle-man, contracting it from a bat before then transmitting it to a human. It has not yet been confirmed what type of animal this was.

Dr Michael Skinner, a virologist at Imperial College London, was not involved with the research but said: ‘The discovery definitely places the origin of nCoV in bats in China.

‘We still do not know whether another species served as an intermediate host to amplify the virus, and possibly even to bring it to the market, nor what species that host might have been.’  

So far the fatalities are quite low. Why are health experts so worried about it? 

Experts say the international community is concerned about the virus because so little is known about it and it appears to be spreading quickly.

It is similar to SARS, which infected 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 in an outbreak in Asia in 2003, in that it is a type of coronavirus which infects humans’ lungs. It is less deadly than SARS, however, which killed around one in 10 people, compared to approximately one in 50 for COVID-19.

Another reason for concern is that nobody has any immunity to the virus because they’ve never encountered it before. This means it may be able to cause more damage than viruses we come across often, like the flu or common cold.

Speaking at a briefing in January, Oxford University professor, Dr Peter Horby, said: ‘Novel viruses can spread much faster through the population than viruses which circulate all the time because we have no immunity to them.

‘Most seasonal flu viruses have a case fatality rate of less than one in 1,000 people. Here we’re talking about a virus where we don’t understand fully the severity spectrum but it’s possible the case fatality rate could be as high as two per cent.’

If the death rate is truly two per cent, that means two out of every 100 patients who get it will die. 

‘My feeling is it’s lower,’ Dr Horby added. ‘We’re probably missing this iceberg of milder cases. But that’s the current circumstance we’re in.

‘Two per cent case fatality rate is comparable to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 so it is a significant concern globally.’

How does the virus spread?

The illness can spread between people just through coughs and sneezes, making it an extremely contagious infection. And it may also spread even before someone has symptoms.

It is believed to travel in the saliva and even through water in the eyes, therefore close contact, kissing, and sharing cutlery or utensils are all risky. It can also live on surfaces, such as plastic and steel, for up to 72 hours, meaning people can catch it by touching contaminated surfaces.

Originally, people were thought to be catching it from a live animal market in Wuhan city. But cases soon began to emerge in people who had never been there, which forced medics to realise it was spreading from person to person. 

What does the virus do to you? What are the symptoms?

Once someone has caught the COVID-19 virus it may take between two and 14 days, or even longer, for them to show any symptoms – but they may still be contagious during this time.

If and when they do become ill, typical signs include a runny nose, a cough, sore throat and a fever (high temperature). The vast majority of patients will recover from these without any issues, and many will need no medical help at all.

In a small group of patients, who seem mainly to be the elderly or those with long-term illnesses, it can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection in which the insides of the lungs swell up and fill with fluid. It makes it increasingly difficult to breathe and, if left untreated, can be fatal and suffocate people.

Figures are showing that young children do not seem to be particularly badly affected by the virus, which they say is peculiar considering their susceptibility to flu, but it is not clear why. 

What have genetic tests revealed about the virus? 

Scientists in China have recorded the genetic sequences of around 19 strains of the virus and released them to experts working around the world. 

This allows others to study them, develop tests and potentially look into treating the illness they cause.   

Examinations have revealed the coronavirus did not change much – changing is known as mutating – much during the early stages of its spread.

However, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, said the virus was mutating and adapting as it spread through people.

This means efforts to study the virus and to potentially control it may be made extra difficult because the virus might look different every time scientists analyse it.   

More study may be able to reveal whether the virus first infected a small number of people then change and spread from them, or whether there were various versions of the virus coming from animals which have developed separately.

How dangerous is the virus?  

The virus has a death rate of around two per cent. This is a similar death rate to the Spanish Flu outbreak which, in 1918, went on to kill around 50million people.

Experts have been conflicted since the beginning of the outbreak about whether the true number of people who are infected is significantly higher than the official numbers of recorded cases. Some people are expected to have such mild symptoms that they never even realise they are ill unless they’re tested, so only the more serious cases get discovered, making the death toll seem higher than it really is.

However, an investigation into government surveillance in China said it had found no reason to believe this was true.

Dr Bruce Aylward, a World Health Organization official who went on a mission to China, said there was no evidence that figures were only showing the tip of the iceberg, and said recording appeared to be accurate, Stat News reported.

Can the virus be cured? 

The COVID-19 virus cannot be cured and it is proving difficult to contain.

Antibiotics do not work against viruses, so they are out of the question. Antiviral drugs can work, but the process of understanding a virus then developing and producing drugs to treat it would take years and huge amounts of money.

No vaccine exists for the coronavirus yet and it’s not likely one will be developed in time to be of any use in this outbreak, for similar reasons to the above.

The National Institutes of Health in the US, and Baylor University in Waco, Texas, say they are working on a vaccine based on what they know about coronaviruses in general, using information from the SARS outbreak. But this may take a year or more to develop, according to Pharmaceutical Technology.

Currently, governments and health authorities are working to contain the virus and to care for patients who are sick and stop them infecting other people.

People who catch the illness are being quarantined in hospitals, where their symptoms can be treated and they will be away from the uninfected public.

And airports around the world are putting in place screening measures such as having doctors on-site, taking people’s temperatures to check for fevers and using thermal screening to spot those who might be ill (infection causes a raised temperature).

However, it can take weeks for symptoms to appear, so there is only a small likelihood that patients will be spotted up in an airport.

Is this outbreak an epidemic or a pandemic?   

The outbreak was declared a pandemic on March 11. A pandemic is defined by the World Health Organization as the ‘worldwide spread of a new disease’. 

Previously, the UN agency said most cases outside of Hubei had been ‘spillover’ from the epicentre, so the disease wasn’t actually spreading actively around the world.

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