Quebec's COVID-19 vaccine is blocked by the WHO. Linked to tobacco?

The plant-based vaccine has approval from Health Canada.
Loukia Papadopoulos

Last month, Quebec's Medicago's plant-based COVID-19 vaccine, called Covifenz, got approval from Health Canada to offer Canadians the option of getting a homegrown shot against SARS-CoV-2.

But now the WHO has paused the application for pre-qualification of the new Covifenz shot, due to the firm's ties to cigarette maker Philip Morris International, according to a report by CTV News published on Thursday.

Will the vaccine producer be able to overcome this next hurdle?

A vaccination put on hold

"Due to its connections — it’s partially owned by Philip Morris — the process is put on hold," Mariangela Simao, WHO’s assistant director-general for drug access, vaccines and pharmaceuticals, said at a media briefing on Wednesday.

"The WHO and the UN have a very strict policy regarding engagement with the tobacco and arms industry, so it’s very likely it won’t be accepted for emergency use listing."

Medicago has produced the world’s first plant-based COVID inoculation made from proteins grown in plants. It was jointly developed by Medicago, which is owned by Mitsubishi Chemical, Philip Morris, and Glaxo, and received US$ 173 million in funding from the Canadian government.

A violation of the 2005 WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control

Anti-tobacco groups consider the approval of a drug that has links to the tobacco industry as a violation of the 2005 WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. However, Medicago does have an agreement with the Canadian government to supply up to 76 million doses of the vaccine. This is a move that is not well-received by anti-tobacco groups.

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"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 at Action on Smoking and Health in Edmonton, told BNN Bloomberg. "This is not Canada’s proudest moment in public health."

Will this hold by the WHO become an all-out block or might Medicago's vaccine see the light of day outside of Canada?