WHO decision killed Canada-made COVID vaccine

During a pandemic, a fair amount of flexibility is required.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has supported the need for out-of-the-box thinking about vaccine production and delivery to protect the world.

But when faced with the very situation, the WHO invoked a 2005 policy and condemned a promising Canadian-made vaccine as a tragic death for having a minority connection to a company. cigarette.

“I think the WHO has completely gone astray,” said David Sweanor, a lawyer, longtime anti-tobacco advocate and associate professor of law at the University of Ottawa.

“If the World Health Organization is getting in the way of a vaccine to treat an epidemic, how does that affect their long-term credibility?”

A year ago, agency officials refused to endorse a vaccine made by Quebec-based Medicago. It used a plant related to tobacco as a “factory” to create virus seeds that teach the immune system to fight the virus that causes COVID-19.

Health Canada approved the Covifenz vaccine last February, after studies showed two doses to be 71% effective at protecting adults aged 18 to 64 from COVID-19 infection and disease. . The vaccine is 70% effective against Omicron.

Medicago’s technology is also seen by many as having great potential to create both vaccines and antibody treatments for other diseases, including cancer, arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

But the plants used in production are relatives of the tobacco plant and are provided by tobacco giant Phillip Morris, a minority shareholder (21%).

That goes against the WHO’s nearly two-decade policy of not engaging with tobacco companies – part of an international treaty that deprecates government partnerships and cooperation with companies like So.
Article 5.3 of the 44-page Tobacco Control Framework Regulation requires all parties, in establishing and implementing their public health policies related to tobacco control, to “act to protect protect these policies from commercial and other interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law.”

Instead of negotiating or discussing options, WHO officials publicly rejected Covifenz on March 25 last year.

“It is well known that WHO and the United Nations have very strict policies regarding participation in the tobacco and weapons industries, so the process has stalled. Mariangela Simao, a WHO spokeswoman, said in a statement to CTV News Montreal at the time.


Without WHO endorsement, few governments are willing to buy vaccines. In fact, Canada is the only country that has officially approved the vaccine and agreed to purchase the dose.

Medicago is ready to go into full production. However, its parent company, Mitsubishi Chemical Group, announced last week that Medicago would be shutting down. Officials cited changes to the COVID-19 “vaccine landscape” and lower global demand for a COVID-19 vaccine.

But the responsibility is largely on the WHO, according to a Montreal-based infectious disease doctor.

Dr Todd Lee wrote in a Twitter post: “It’s too bad the WHO killed Medicago by not endorsing it because Phillip Morris owned part of it.

In a follow-up email to CTV News, Dr. Lee added, “I think WHO’s decision not to endorse a vaccine is likely to cripple Medicago’s ability to secure the major types of contracts needed. for this product to succeed.”

That decision in Geneva effectively plunged the company into a death spiral, with closures resulting in 600 job losses.

“What about all the other people who have… spent time, effort and money finding an effective vaccine? … Are they just collateral damage?” Sweanor said in an interview with CTV News.


“It was a very black and white decision they made,” said Tanya Watts, an immunologist and professor at the University of Toronto.

Referring to the WHO framework to address tobacco consumption and production around the world, she added, “This is a good use of tobacco.”

Sweanor agrees, saying: “There has to be a basis for why you are opposed to the corporate tobacco companies, a very solid basis to get angry at them, regulate them, … But if they do this If something is really good, then why are we against it? ?

The federal government of Canada has agreed to buy up to 76 million doses of the drug, in addition to a $173 million investment to help build a factory in Quebec City. This will be the first domestic production of the vaccine in Canada in decades.

Canadians like Nathan Majaraj, of Quebec, also put their bodies to the test of vaccines.

“It was great,” he told CTV News. “I’m excited to be testing a new vaccine and as a parent I’m excited to tell my kids this is what I did. I was able to help.”

Majaraj also disagreed with the WHO’s decision to refuse to endorse the vaccine, noting that the decision could have broader implications, beyond the pandemic.

He added: “This is currently blocking this (research and development) path as we definitely need more options to develop more vaccine production. Medicago also has a new flu vaccine and an H5N1 avian flu vaccine that successfully passed Phase 2 trials, adding to the overall toll.


During the pandemic, WHO urgently called for the expansion of vaccine research and production worldwide. According to Health Canada, doses of Medicago’s COVID-19 vaccine have been reserved for Africa.

Watts says one advantage Medicago’s product has over some of the approved vaccines is that it doesn’t have the same cryopreservation requirements as the mRNA injections, and so “would be more suitable for Europe.” Africa and places like that,” Watts said.

Because the drug was not approved, another goal of WHO – promoting vaccine equity – was set back by this decision.


Another criticism of the WHO’s denial came from closer to home; Some Canadians are now focusing on a lost federal government investment that may not be recovered.

But those criticisms aren’t just directed at the WHO.

Some blame Canada for supporting a plant-sponsored tobacco-based vaccine in the first place.

An editorial in the British Medical Journal in 2020 warned that by partnering with Philip Morris on their vaccine candidate, “The Government of Canada is demonstrating complete disregard for its treaty obligations. its convention under the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.” The editorial accused the federal government of “turning a blind eye to the tobacco industry and the eight million deaths annually it is causing.”

Canadian health groups, including the Quebec Coalition for Tobacco Control and Doctors for a Smoke-Free Canada, have urged Ottawa, the province of Quebec and Medicago itself to replace Philip Morris as a stakeholder due to their tobacco business. The company severed ties with the cigarette maker at the end of 2022, but then its fate was decided.

In a statement to CTV News at the time of the WHO refusal, Health Canada said it stood by Medicago’s vaccine investment and that the treaty agreement was not violated.

Health Canada spokesman Mark Johnson said: “The Government of Canada has carefully studied its investment in Medicago and believes it is in compliance with its tobacco control treaty obligations under the Convention. WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco”.

One factor that some critics of the government’s pro-Medicago government forgot was that the country was part of a desperate international scramble to secure whatever supplies it could at the time, because because Canada did not produce the vaccine domestically when the pandemic started.

“Put you back in early 2020,” Watts said, “Everybody wants a vaccine and no one knows which one will pass. I think (the government) has been consulted by the scientists and they have decided to hedge their bets and back some (vaccines) and I think this is a very good candidate.”

And despite the decision on a Canadian-made vaccine, the WHO has previously called plant-based vaccines “a new and exciting possibility,” according to the Washington Post, because they could be “manufactured.” export in large quantities” at low prices. long shelf life.

CTV News has requested a comment from the WHO. No response received.

Medicago has also received funding from the United States through a program called the Defense Advanced Research Project (DARPA), because it can be faster and easier to produce vaccines in plants than with the old standard production method of using eggs, the Washington Post reported.


Watts believes the decision to stop production of a new vaccine is a blow to Canada’s ability to protect citizens in the future. “There is definitely another new infectious disease that will emerge,” Watts said, adding that Canada will likely have to rely on vaccine imports to tackle those viruses because there is no basis for it. any major producer in the country.

Sweanor agrees that it jeopardizes Canada’s ability to produce vaccines in the future.

“Some of my (public health) colleagues did something really stupid and counterproductive. People they don’t even know will suffer and die from this,” he said.

Sweanor says the underlying policy is long overdue for review because it discourages companies from diversifying away from tobacco.

His argument at the time was that advocating for such a vaccine would give incentives to companies targeted by the FCTC to sell less dangerous products.

World health officials said in a statement last March that the agency was reviewing a policy that would prevent any cooperation with companies that advertise tobacco.

But any change in its stance will come too late for Medicago. Technology and jobs are gone, and opportunities are lost because of a policy that may not serve the public good.

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