Quebec-based Medicago is the only Canadian-developed dose to have been greenlit by Health Canada.
The World Health Organization will “very likely” reject the only Canadian-developed COVID-19 vaccine for use globally because of its ties to tobacco giant Philip Morris International, a top WHO official said Wednesday.
Health Canada greenlit the dose made by Quebec-based Medicago less than a month ago. The vaccine, which is manufactured using a cousin of a tobacco plant — one the company has stressed cannot be smoked — was found to be 71 per cent effective against symptomatic COVID in trials.
But it’s the fact that the company is partially owned by the famed tobacco maker that has raised eyebrows in Geneva: “It’s well-known that WHO and UN has a very strict policy regarding the engagement with tobacco and arms industry,” Dr. Mariangela Simao, the WHO’s assistant director general for access to medicines and health products, told media on Wednesday.
There’s no tobacco in the shot and the average recipient would never go near one of the plants used to make it, but its corporate ownership means that for now, Medicago’s application to be considered for what is essentially emergency use is “on hold,” though Simao said it was “very likely” that it wouldn’t be accepted at all.
While this won’t affect the dose’s availability in Canada, it will likely hamstring its use overseas. It also casts a shadow over the government’s efforts to bolster the country’s ability to make its own vaccines in the wake of a global pandemic that left it scrambling for shots.
More broadly, it’s revived the question of what matters more — a medicine that could save lives, or the company that funded it?
The majority stake — at 79 per cent — in Medicago is held by Japanese pharmaceutical company Mitsubishi Tanabe, according to a company spokesperson.
Meanwhile, Philip Morris International, known for the tobacco products it has sold around the globe, owns 21 per cent. According to its own website, PMI has been a stakeholder in the company since 2008.
The result of that partnership, a COVID vaccine named Covifenz, is the only Canadian-developed vaccine to have been authorized so far. It’s also the only Canadian vaccine the government has prepurchased, with an agreement for as many as 76 million doses.
Furthermore, amidst concerns that Canada largely lacked the ability to make its own pandemic vaccine, the government gave the company $173 million to hasten the construction of a manufacturing plant in Quebec City.
When that deal was announced, Philip Morris sent out a press release saying Medicago’s work was in line with its own “efforts to leverage science and innovation.”
“Better outcomes can be achieved when governments and companies join efforts to promote shared objectives for the greater good,” CEO André Calantzopoulos was quoted as saying.
Now, the WHO’s decision means the vaccine may not be used outside the country.
Although wealthy nations such as Canada have their own drug regulators that make the final decision about whether or not a vaccine should be made available in their countries, the WHO vets drugs on behalf of countries unable to do so.
Notably, all COVID vaccines distributed through the international vaccine-sharing scheme known as COVAX must have WHO authorization, meaning Canada would likely not be able to share the Medicago doses it has purchased with poorer countries through that process.
At a time when Canada is nowhere near meeting its pledges to donate vaccine to the rest of the world, this could mean more doses sitting in our freezers while people in other countries wait.
“[Medicago’s] is an interesting vaccine platform, not just as a tool for COVID-19 but potentially for other diseases as well,” says Adam Houston, a PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa’s law faculty who works on public health and access to medicine.
“I think it’s a really important question of whether we can divorce this underlying technology, which looks like a very positive contribution to the world, from these other concerns.”
For antismoking advocates like Les Hagan, the executive director of Action on Smoking and Health, the deal amounts to corporate whitewashing for a tobacco company.
“Philip Morris has had endless opportunities to clean up in terms of reducing its overall disease burden from tobacco use, but it continues to sell and promote the number one brand in the world,” he says, referring to Marlboro cigarettes.
He points out that the rate of smoking, and therefore the disease burden from tobacco use, is higher in developing countries. “So, Canada has a collaboration with Philip Morris. It should not foist its collaboration on other countries,” he says.
There is a global agreement — called the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control — that requires countries to keep their public health policies aimed at reducing smoking far away from the commercial interests of big tobacco.
Hagan argues that vaccines are a public health matter, and working with a tobacco company violates that agreement.
But in an email, a spokesperson for Health Canada said it has “studied the matter of the Government of Canada’s investment in Medicago carefully,” and said Canada believes it’s abiding by that rule.
Specifically, the convention should not prevent the country from working with Medicago to ensure “a ready and effective supply of vaccines,” the spokesperson said.
But another antismoking advocate says tobacco companies should be applauded, not punished, for changing their stripes. It’s unlikely that these companies are going away, so it’s a net positive if they can be nudged in the right direction, says David Sweanor, an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa and longtime legal counsel for antismoking groups.
“The reason we were attacking cigarette companies all of my career was because they behaved in a reprehensible way that was causing a lot of unnecessary death and disease,” he says.
“How do you react when they do something that actually reduces death and disease? And how can you have any credibility if you just attack them for the good work they do?”
Alex Boyd – The Star – 2022-03-09.