16 March 2022
Zachary Snowdon Smith Source: Forbes
A plant-based Covid-19 vaccine developed by Canadian pharmaceutical firm Medicago “very likely won’t be accepted” for emergency use approval by the World Health Organization because Medicago is partially owned by cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris International, a WHO official said Wednesday.
Medicago’s application for emergency use approval has been paused due to the company’s connection to Philip Morris, which might run afoul of the WHO’s “very strict” policies on partnering with tobacco and arms companies, Dr. Mariângela Simão, the WHO’s assistant director-general of access to medicines and health products, said.
The vaccine—known as Covifenz—would be the first Western-manufactured Covid-19 shot rejected by the WHO, Bloomberg reported.
Philip Morris holds a 21% stake in Medicago, while Japanese pharmaceutical firm Mitsubishi Tanabe owns a 79% stake, a Medicago spokesperson said.
Medicago CEO Takashi Nagao said in a statement Wednesday he had not received any official communication from the WHO, and emphasized that the WHO’s decision was not linked to the safety and efficacy of the company’s vaccine.
If Covifenz is rejected by the WHO, the vaccine would be excluded from the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) initiative, which helps provide vaccines and other supplies for fighting Covid-19 to developing countries, likely curtailing international demand for Covifenz.
Earlier this month, the WHO announced it had rejected Medicago’s request to have Covifenz pre-qualified for approval.
In October 2020, Medicago agreed to supply up to 76 million vaccine doses to the Canadian government while receiving $173 million in government funding. Medicago’s Covifenz is the first plant-based Covid-19 vaccine, and it showed 71% effectiveness against the virus and 75.3% effectiveness against the delta variant in studies conducted before the omicron variant became dominant. Health Canada approved Covifenz for use by people ages 18 to 64 on February 24. At the time, Canadian Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry François-Philippe Champagne hailed the drug’s approval as a milestone in reversing a 40-year decline in the country’s biomanufacturing industry, though Covifenz has yet to be approved for use anywhere outside Canada. The WHO’s ability to do business with entities linked to the tobacco industry is limited by the 2005 Framework Convention on Tobacco Protocol, which attempts to restrict tobacco industry interests from influencing healthcare policy.
Canada is a signatory to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Protocol, and its partnership with Philip Morris subsidiary Medicago provoked criticism from some tobacco control groups. “Even if it’s not a violation of the letter, it’s definitely a violation of the spirit of the convention,” Les Hagen, executive director for anti-smoking group Action on Smoking and Health in Edmonton, Canada, told Bloomberg. “This is not Canada’s proudest moment in public health.”