Plant-based COVID-19 vaccine candidate being manufactured by RTP company

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- Sometimes things come full circle.

Forty years ago, North Carolina's economy was based primarily on tobacco.

And now a company with an RTP-based U.S. headquarters and a Raleigh-based drug trial company are involved the development and testing of a vaccine candidate made from a tobacco plant variant that is also grown in the Triangle by the Canadian company behind the vaccine.

"All you have to do is extract the spike protein from the plant from the leaves, and you have the vaccine," Dr. Matthew Hong said.

Hong is heading up local trials being conducted on the Medicago vaccine candidate by Wake Research.

Medicago is no stranger to fighting pandemics.

In 2009, the company produced a research-grade vaccine candidate against H1N1 in just 19 days. In 2012, Medicago manufactured 10 million doses of an influenza vaccine within one month for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), part of the U.S. Department of Defense. In 2015, Medicago also demonstrated that it could rapidly produce an anti-Ebola antibody cocktail for the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The plant-based vaccine candidate is unique because it's made with something called a Virus Like Particle or VLP.

The VLP is added to the soil at Medicago's RTP facility and drawn into the plant as it grows. The non-infectious agent then mimics the shape and size of the virus so the body can recognize it and create an immune response

Tobacco company Philip Morris, which is owns part of Medicago, claims the process makes the vaccine quicker to produce.

"You don't need all the background and all the other support systems, and all the machinery and all the equipment that goes into making a virus," Dr. Hong said.

He notes the tobacco connection and the Medicago manufacturing plant aren't the only links to North Carolina and the Triangle.

Glaxo Smith Kline, which has its U.S. headquarters in RTP, is providing its immune-enhancing agent called an adjuvant to be added to the vaccine candidate.

"These are chemicals added to the vaccines that really increase their potency and the antibody production," Dr. Hong said.

Wake Research is testing the plant-based vaccine like it did with others that went on to receive the FDA's emergency use authorization.

But with those authorized vaccinations already being injected into millions, the Medicago vaccine trials could be tricky for the company.

"Our problem now is really getting people who haven't been vaccinated to sign up for this clinical trial," Dr. Hong said.

Wake Research hopes compensation, they won't reveal the amount, will persuade people to participate.

And like all the other studies, they need a diverse group in order to get a representative match for the population, according Dr. Hong.

He says, like the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, this one, if approved, would require a second shot three weeks after the first.
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