There is an old adage in medicine that says that sometimes for a given condition, “the cure is worse than the disease.”
That could certainly apply to a novel approach to treating the dreaded coronavirus. One of the most maligned industries in America is joining the race to stop the coronavirus epidemic.
Reynolds American, the North Carolina cigarette giant behind the Camel, Newport and Pall Mall brands, is infecting fast-growing tobacco plants with a genetically modified coronavirus to see if they can produce antibodies for a possible vaccine.
If this all sounds a bit bizarre, it’s not unique. The research arm of the Department of Defense developed a flu vaccine using tobacco plants in 2012, when rapid development of 10 million doses was needed to stave off a national pandemic.
Reynolds has tried this before with limited success, during the Ebola crisis in 2015. If they can come up with a viable cure this time around, it could offset declining cigarette sales, new tobacco age restrictions and a possible menthol ban. Public health experts say the experiment, if successful, could be scaled up quickly to respond to an international outbreak.
“Plant-based solutions” could over time prove more effective than the typical process — growing a virus in eggs — said Alan Magill, program manager for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), that used the tobacco approach in 2012, adding, “the research is very promising.”
But big hurdles remain. It would take thousands of doses to come up with an experimental treatment. Reynolds’ work is in the very early stages, meaning the outbreak could subside before a cure is close to perfected. And some vaccines may not be 100 percent effective against all the strains of a target disease, as was the case with Ebola.
Such factors have kept most big drug companies away from the vaccine business — Moderna Therapeutics and Johnson & Johnson are the only companies who’ve publicly acknowledged working on a coronavirus vaccine, both with government support.
But, the tobacco companies are still pushing forward. Besides Reynolds’ tiny Kentucky BioProcessing subsidiary, which is testing the coronavirus, Philip Morris has taken a 40 percent stake in Medicago, a firm using the similar tobacco-growing technology to try to develop a flu vaccine.
“People can be cynical. But the fact is that we might be able to help,” said Hugh Haydon, Kentucky BioProcessing’s chief executive officer.
Of course, it’s the bottom line and not corporate altruism that is motivating Big Tobacco’s pivot toward drug making. Teen tobacco use had steadily fallen for two decades before e-cigarettes swung the trend around in 2018, earning promises of a federal crackdown on the sector that the companies have increasingly leaned on, while traditional smoking has continued to decline. Congress in December also raised the nationwide age to purchase tobacco to 21, while lawmakers continue to debate an all-out menthol tobacco ban that would hit many of Reynolds’ best-selling products.
Reynolds, owned by British American Tobacco, had been looking to diversify for several years. Before buying the Kentucky lab, the tobacco giant was “pulling apart the tobacco plant” looking for other uses than cigarettes, recounts James Figlar, executive vice president of research and development. Metformin has shown benefits in boosting health.