When I asked one of South Africa’s foremost futurists, Pieter Geldenhuys, to offer his insight into fighting the Covid-19 disease, I assumed that he would mirror the advice offered by his peers.
I expected comments like “flattening the curve” to ensure the availability of intensive care facilities, and with a vaccine months away (and winter on our doorstep), I thought he would suggest cycles to balance both societal health and economic survival until enough vaccines could be produced to enable heard-immunity.
Perhaps I expected advice on strengthening societal cohesion in times of uncertainty, or the focus on bolstering your family’s health to optimise survival once affected.
I did not expect him to advise government to urgently consider the construction of large-scale tobacco cultivation facilities.
The rationale behind his rather unconventional advice, however, is quite logical. It has everything to do with the speed at which we can produce a vaccine for Covid-19.
“Developing a vaccine to assist humanity in fighting the various strains of the Covid-19 is but the first act of the play,” he says.
“Once one of the multitude of medical research teams have developed an effective vaccine for the strain prevalent in South Africa, it will take several months, or even years, before enough vaccines could be produced to fill the global need. This is where tobacco plants come in,” says Geldenhuys.
In the research he conducted for his upcoming book Headlines from the Future, Geldenhuys came across the Blue Angel project that dated from 2010. Blue Angel was funded by DARPA, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency. The Blue Angel project was based on the need to rapidly reproduce vaccines in times of need.
A large part of the $100 million funding behind Blue Angel went to a Canadian company called Medicago to build a facility in North Carolina. There they showed that once a vaccine is found, they can rapidly scale up production. Medicago says that once they get the green light, they will be able to produce 10 million vaccine doses per month.
Traditional vaccine production dates back to the 1940s, in which a small amount of live flu virus is injected into a chicken egg.
“Every step of the process brings delay,” Nathalie Charland, senior director of Scientific and Medical Affairs at Medicago, said about this outdated process in an article for Upi.com. “They may not be growing well. You are killing embryos. There may not be enough viruses with egg-based manufacturers.”
Also, one egg produces up to four vaccines, but for one tobacco plant, up to 50 vaccines can be produced. In addition, egg viruses sometimes cause problems with mutation, especially in the H3N2 viruses, which cause the worst outbreaks.
“Plants are highly efficient at producing proteins of varying complexity, serving as mini factories for our vaccines,” the company said in a fact sheet. “Greenhouse manufacturing can quickly scale to meet urgent needs.”
The problem is, the production of vaccines is not a quick process. According to the World Health Organisation, it can take up to nine months to develop and send a vaccine into production. On top of that, egg-based and other conventional vaccine production techniques may not be able to scale up sufficiently to meet the demand – especially for diseases where two doses per person are required for adequate protection.
So Medicago doesn’t work with a live virus. Instead, it uses plants. It inserts a genetic sequence into agrobacterium, a soil bacteria, which is taken up through the plants’ roots — in this case, a close cousin to tobacco. The plant begins to produce the protein that can then be used as a vaccine. If the virus begins to mutate, as is expected of Covid-19, they can just update the production using new plants.
“That’s the difference between us and egg-based methods,” CEO Bruce Clark said in an article in defenseone.com. “We go directly to producing the vaccine or the antibody without having to propagate the virus.”
Using plants and genetically engineered agrobacteria works faster than eggs, but it also makes the vaccine much easier to produce at scale, which, in part, is why the US military has invested in the company.
As of 21 March 2020, Medicago received $7 million from the Government of Quebec towards a Covid-19 vaccine development.
Geldenhuys’s advice for various governments around the world is clear. Keep your ear on the ground and start reaching out to companies like these. Once initial tests show success, consider building your own tobacco cultivation plants to ensure that you can reproduce the vaccine at speed.