COVID-19: Medicago Begins Phase I Trials for Plant-Based VLP Vaccine

by Pavel Ryzhov
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By Pavel Ryzhov, Ph.D.

As COVID-19 cases continue to climb and hover around 14 million, the cry for a vaccine is now higher than ever. However, the exact timeline for the availability of a potent candidate remains a subject of intense debate. As per the consensus of scientists, physicians, and pharma industry experts, Spring 2021 seems to be a realistic target.

To try and meet this unprecedented milestone, several companies are advancing various types of vaccines, with a few even reaching late-stage trials in humans. The impetus from the government and funding bodies, the dire public health situation, and the collective urgency to overcome this crisis has pushed companies to innovate, collaborate, and expedite their R&D process.

On July 14th, Quebec-based Medicago, an affiliate company of Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma Corporation, initiated Phase 1 clinical trials of its plant-derived virus-like particle (VLP) vaccine [1].

“Creating a sufficient supply of COVID-19 vaccines within the next year is a challenge which will require multiple approaches, with different technologies,” said Dr. Bruce Clark, President, and CEO of Medicago. “Our proven plant-based technology is capable of contributing to the collective solution to this public health emergency.”


Collaboration with GSK

According to an earlier press release on July 8th, the company will be testing its candidate with two adjuvants, one from GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and another from Dynavax [2]. The trial will analyze the safety and immunogenicity of three different doses of the antigen. The one- and two-dose schedule of vaccination will also be evaluated.

The announcement of the partnership comes at a time where several candidates are under evaluation, including Sinovac’s inactivated virus-based candidate and AstraZeneca’s non-replicating viral vector-based vaccine, which are in Phase III. The VLP vaccine differs from the rest in that the plant-based method of development may provide solutions to the common problems like the traditional egg-based vaccine manufacturing and subsequent storage [3], while produced VLPs lack core genetic material, thus being non-infectious [4].

The collaboration between Medicago and GSK plays into each other’s strengths. Medicago has already established a platform for large-scale VLP production using tobacco-related plant N. benthamiana [5] and advanced multiple vaccine candidates for other virus-borne diseases such as rotavirus and seasonal flu. GSK, on the other hand, has recently announced its intention to produce 1 billion doses of the vaccine adjuvant system in 2021 in support of the vaccine candidates. The announced partnership is said to span beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, with other infections being targeted in the future.

An increasing sentiment in the vaccine development field among the pharma and public health experts is that there will not be a one-size-fits-all solution to the COVID-19 pandemic [6]. Therefore, there may be multiple vaccines available, which would ultimately benefit more people, driving down the costs, and meeting the high demand. And the partnerships between individual companies and between private and public sectors that have formed as a result of this pandemic will spur more innovations and advancements for years to come.

Editor: Rajaneesh K. Gopinath, Ph.D.

Related Article: Pfizer & BioNTech’s COVID-19 Vaccine Receives FDA’s Fast Track Designation



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