Quebec company making plant-based COVID-19 vaccine candidate here at home

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By Ted Raymond, CTV News 

OTTAWA -- A Quebec-based company is producing a plant-based COVID-19 vaccine candidate and, while testing is still underway, is hopeful a made-in-Canada vaccine could be ready by next year.

Medicago, based in Quebec City, describes itself as "a pioneer of plant-based transient expression and manufacturing." Earlier this month, the company said its adjuvanted vaccine candidate spurred a significant antibody response in 100 per cent of the trial subjects in Phase 1 of testing.

In an interview on CTV Morning Live in Ottawa on Friday, Medicago's chief medical officer Dr. Brian Ward said the company's Phase 2 study began this week.

"We hope to complete that by the end of the year and then enter into the Phase 3 portion where we'll determine the efficacy of the vaccine," he said. "We hope that will be completed by the late spring and then it's really up to the data and the regulators."

Of the aforementioned antibody response, Ward cautioned that that's not the same as what other companies, like Pfizer, have previously announced.

"Neutralizing antibodies are thought to be very important and, certainly, in the young, healthy adults that we studied in our Phase 1, we saw 100 per cent response, but that's very different from showing efficacy," he said.

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"I can't really predict anything but I hope that based on the neutralizing antibody response that we've seen in our Phase 1 study, we will perform in a similar fashion to the vaccines that have gone into Phase 3 before us."

Phase 3 is when the efficacy of the vaccine is tested to see if it will actively prevent transmission of the virus.

Ward admits the company is "a couple of months behind" global competitors but he suggests the Medicago vaccine candidate could be ready by summer 2021 and that the company could produce as many as a million doses per month in Canada and even more in the U.S.

"We have production facilities in Canada as well as in North Carolina," he said. "At the current time, we can make about one to two million doses per month in Ste. Foy (Quebec), at our pilot plant, and about 10 times that number in North Carolina."

In Phase 1, the company looked at around 180 healthy subjects between the ages of 18 and 55. Phase 2 will involve around 600 subjects, between the ages of 18 and 64 and, in the final phase of the clinical trials, Medicago hopes to enrol around 30,000 subjects in different regions around the world.

In October, the company announced that they had reached an agreement with the federal government to supply Canada with up to 76 million doses of their vaccine, subject to approval from Health Canada.

Medicago's vaccine candidate is different from many others currently in human trials in that it uses "coronavirus virus-like particles" (CoVLP), which mimic the virus to spur an immune response without introducing any form of the actual virus to the human body.

In order to make their vaccine, Medicago uses plants to produce the antigen in the vaccine. This is done by transferring genetic code into a plant, at which point "the plant will start expressing that antigen like if it was its own," according to Nathalie Landry, executive vice president of scientific and medical affairs at Medicago, who spoke to CTVNews.ca by telephone earlier this month.

The plant the company uses is called nicotiana benthamiana, a relative of the tobacco plant which, according to the company, is "the most widely used experimental host in plant virology, due mainly to the large number of viruses that can successfully infect it."

Medicago is building a new facility in Ste. Foy, Que., which is expected to be up and running by the end of 2023. Ward said the facility, once it's running, could produce up to a billion doses of vaccines in a year.

With files from CTVNews.ca's Alexandra Mae Jones.

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