WHO rejects Quebec vaccine from Medicago
Designed on the basis of plants, Medicago's vaccine candidate incorporates virus-like particles, with or without an adjuvant.
The World Health Organization (WHO) rejects Medicago's COVID-19 vaccine given that the Quebec company is partly owned by tobacco company Philip Morris.
The news, first reported by The Globe and Mail, was confirmed by Medicago, then by WHO. Indeed, the pharmaceutical company indicates that it has received an email informing it of a preliminary decision from the WHO and mentioning that an official letter should be sent shortly with additional information.
“Medicago is currently awaiting this information. Once Medicago has received and reviewed the rationale for this decision, it will be able to continue its discussions on the next steps with its partners and investors”, specifies the Medicago team in an email sent to Métro .
Although the vaccine – called Covifenz – has been approved by Health Canada for people aged 18 to 64, the WHO refuses to do the same because of the pharmaceutical's ties to the tobacco industry. Indeed, the tobacco company Philip Morris is a minority shareholder in the Quebec-based company.
Since 2005, the WHO has had a very strict policy regarding agreements concluded with companies that have significant ties to the tobacco or arms industry.
The Covifenz vaccine “has so far not been accepted due to the link to the tobacco industry and the strict policy of WHO not to engage with companies that promote tobacco”, WHO said by email. The UN agency says it is currently leading discussions on how to respond to a general trend by the tobacco industry to invest in the health industry.
While WHO’s decision is unrelated to the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine, it does mean that it cannot be used in the initiative international vaccination program COVAX.
“Predictable and avoidable fiasco”
Already last week, this refusal was anticipated since the WHO had suspended the approval of the Medicago vaccine. When the suspension of the approval of the Covifenz vaccine was announced, the Quebec Coalition for Tobacco Control called the situation a “predictable and avoidable fiasco”.
The Coalition's co-director and spokesperson, Flory Doucas, denounced the fact that no steps had been taken to convince the tobacco giant to withdraw as a shareholder of Medicago. According to her, this would automatically solve the problem. “There is a simple pathway for this vaccine to be deployed internationally, and all it takes is a bit of political courage by our governments, including Minister Duclos, to stand up to tobacco company Philip Morris,” she added.
The Government of Canada has already invested $173 million in Medicago in 2020 to support the development of the Covifenz vaccine and help the company increase production. Earlier this week, Canada's Minister for International Development, Harjit Sajjan, urged the WHO to approve the vaccine for international distribution.
In addition to being the first covid vaccine developed by a Canadian company to be licensed, Covifenz is the first to use plant-based production technology.