Big Tobacco's divestment from Quebec's Medicago 'a step in the right direction' for its COVID vaccine

A plant-based COVID-19 vaccine, Covifenz, produced by Medicago was initially rejected by the World Health Organization over the Quebec company's ties with Big Tobacco. But tobacco company Philip Morris has divested all of its shares in Medicago, leaving the door open for an arrangement with WHO. (Turgut Yeter/CBC - image credit)
A plant-based COVID-19 vaccine, Covifenz, produced by Medicago was initially rejected by the World Health Organization over the Quebec company's ties with Big Tobacco. But tobacco company Philip Morris has divested all of its shares in Medicago, leaving the door open for an arrangement with WHO. (Turgut Yeter/CBC - image credit)

Tobacco company Philip Morris International has divested all of its shares from Medicago, a Canadian vaccine collaborator whose plant-based COVID-19 vaccine, Covifenz, was initially rejected by the World Health Organization over its ties with Big Tobacco.

In a statement on Thursday, Philip Morris spokesperson David Fraser said the company decided to divest its stake in Medicago and that it's "the most appropriate way forward."

"We have long believed in the public health potential of Medicago's innovative approach for developing new plant-based vaccines and we hope this potential is realized for the benefit of global public health," Fraser said in an email.

Medicago, whose headquarters is in Quebec, is now 100 per cent owned by Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma. Before the decision, Philip Morris, which produces Marlboro cigarettes, owned 21 per cent of the company's shares.

In an email to CBC News, the Quebec company said the divestment is "the most appropriate way forward." A spokesperson for Medicago said this ensures its "future growth and ability to achieve its mission," which is to "create and deliver effective responses to emerging global health challenges."

Covifenz can now reach international markets

In 2020, the federal government gave Medicago $173 million to develop its vaccine, build a new production facility and purchase 76 million doses. In February, Health Canada approved Covifenz for adults 18 to 64 years old — making it the first plant-based vaccine to be approved for use in Canada.

But in March, the World Health Organization (WHO) said it's not accepting Medicago's request for Covifenz's emergency use, due to the company's "linkage with the tobacco industry."

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press
Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

WHO said the decision was put on hold, which temporarily kept Covifenz out of COVAX, an international COVID-19 vaccine-sharing initiative.

François-Philippe Champagne, Canada's minister of innovation, science and industry, said the federal government has been working with Medicago and its shareholders to "find a solution that supports the growth of the company."

"This transaction is a step in the right direction, and we will continue to follow this matter very closely," Champagne said in an email.

Dr. Scott Halperin, director of the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said the decision now allows Medicago to distribute its vaccine internationally if it reapplies with WHO.

"It's important because it allows Medicago to play on the international stage ... so I think it could be very good news," Halperin said.

"One would have to hypothesize that if Medicago was no longer able to have any type of global vaccine market that they would be a horrible investment for anybody."

Turgut Yeter/CBC
Turgut Yeter/CBC

Public Services and Procurement Canada didn't answer CBC's questions on when the 76 million doses of Covifenz are expected to be delivered from Medicago.

In a statement, the department said negotiations between Ottawa and Medicago "are ongoing."

Decision applauded by tobacco critic

Les Hagen, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health, a charity advocating for tobacco control, reduction and prevention, said he's "relieved" that Canada is no longer collaborating with a multinational tobacco company.

"It's good news," he said. "Hopefully this vaccine can get another review by the World Health Organization."

Hagen criticized the government's decision to collaborate with Medicago in the first place, stating that public funds could have been better invested in other Canadian companies that aren't backed by Big Tobacco, which he accuses of trying to "whitewash" its image.

Colin Hall/CBC
Colin Hall/CBC

"We felt that it was highly unethical. It's actually a contravention of a legally binding treaty: the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control," he said.

The framework, which is managed by WHO, commits to protect public health policies "from the commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry." Canada signed it in 2005.

Earlier this year, a spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada said the federal government "studied the matter of its investment in Medicago carefully" and believes it is still "compliant with its treaty obligations related to tobacco control" with WHO.

'We need that capacity in Canada'

Halperin of Dalhousie said Medicago's vaccine is produced in the leaf of a plant that's a relative of tobacco and that the plant itself acts as a "factory" for producing viral particles that are part of the vaccine.

"It's very novel technology," he said, adding that Covifenz is the first vaccine that uses this technology to fight COVID-19.

Turgut Yeter/CBC
Turgut Yeter/CBC

Canada lost the capability to produce its vaccines years ago due to the consolidation and buyout of many companies, and the government has recognized that deficiency, Halperin said.

"That's going to take time to rebuild.... The Medicago story is just one aspect of it," he said, adding that it's critical to have domestic vaccine-supply ability because borders tend to close during emergencies.

"Despite what everybody says about global co-operation, borders still close and we need that capacity in Canada — both for our own capability but also to contribute to the international scene."