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Mitsubishi Tanabe to bring plant-derived COVID vaccine to Japan

  • September 29, 2021
  • , Nikkei Asia , 9:02 p.m.
  • English Press

TOKYO — Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma has decided to launch the world’s first plant-based vaccine in Japan, Nikkei has learned, potentially paving the way to stable COVID-19 vaccine supplies for a country that so far has approved only overseas-made doses.


The drugmaker plans to begin clinical trials in Japan in October and submit an application to the government as early as March 2022. The company says the vaccine is easy and inexpensive to mass-produce, and that it can cope with new variants.


Medicago, a Canada-based subsidiary, is developing a technology to make vaccines from fast-growing tobacco plants. Viral genes are incorporated into the plants and vaccine components are extracted from the grown leaves.


The human vaccine that comes from this process is thought to be the first made from plants.


To date, Mitsubishi Tanabe, which is in the final stage of clinical trials in Canada, Britain and the U.S., has detected no serious side effects.


A company representative said that trial participants show more than 10 times as many antibodies than COVID-19 patients who have recovered from the disease. “The safety and effectiveness of the vaccine remain comparable to other vaccines,” the representative added.


The representative also said the company is certain that clinical trials in Japan will confirm the findings of the ongoing trials.


CEO Hiroaki Ueno said he expects Mitsubishi Tanabe’s vaccine to cost less than those being made by Pfizer and Moderna. As the process takes advantage of fast-growing tobacco plants, the vaccine can be produced in five to eight weeks, the company said. Pfizer requires at least six weeks to make a vaccine that can handle new COVID-19 variants.


Existing vaccines like Pfizer’s require cryopreservation, but Mitsubishi Tanabe’s vaccine can be stored at temperatures of 2 C to 8 C. This should make it easier to establish a supply chain and for small clinics to be able to handle supplies, even in emerging countries with weak logistics.


With a plant in the U.S. and another being built in Canada, Medicago expects to have an annual capacity of 1 billion doses by 2024.


The company has signed a contract with the Canadian government to supply up to 76 million doses, and aims to commercialize the technology in the country by the end of this year. The company will also consider production in Japan after assessing local demand.


In 2013, Mitsubishi Tanabe acquired Medicago, which had Philip Morris International-backed company as the largest shareholder. It had been developing an influenza vaccine, but after the COVID-19 outbreak, the Japanese parent sent its president and other executives to Medicago to help with a shift to a coronavirus vaccine.


Other Japanese drugmakers are rushing to develop coronavirus vaccines. Shionogi plans to begin the final phase of clinical trials by the end of this year. It is aiming for practical application by the end of March. Daiichi Sankyo and Meiji Holdings-backed KM Biologics are also developing COVID-19 vaccines.

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