A home-grown COVID-19 vaccine candidate could soon be on the market, with Quebec-based Medicago’s latest data showing promising results. The biopharmaceutical manufacturer, which says its product showed 75.3 per cent efficacy against the Delta variant, said it plans to “imminently” file a final regulatory submission to Health Canada.
“I think the results that we have are really exciting and really interesting,” said Brian Ward, medical officer for Medicago.
The data published by Medicago showed efficacy against COVID-19 variants, such as Delta, which is globally the dominant strain. The company said in a press release that other vaccines which are currently in use did not have Phase 3 trials with the Delta variant. Overall, the vaccine had a 71 per cent efficacy against all variants, but the trials occurred before the appearance of the largely unknown Omicron variant.
The vaccine, which is plant-based, “uses living plants as bioreactors to produce a non-infectious particle that mimics the target virus, without the use of any viruses,” according to the company. The technology produces Virus-Like Particles (VLP) for the protein vaccines, which mimic the actual coronavirus and can be easily picked up by the immune system. VLPs are not infectious and unable to replicated.
Medicago’s COVID-19 vaccine uses an adjuvant, which is a drug, substance or combination of substances used to amplify a vaccine effectiveness. Ward said Medicago’s vaccine candidate will also come with a lot of firsts.
“It will probably be the first virus-like particle vaccine for COVID, the first Canadian based vaccine for COVID, and it will be the world’s first plant-based vaccine for human use of any kind,” he said.
No serious adverse events were reported during the trials and the Medicago’s trials, which took place in six countries, saw over 24,000 participants participate. Half used the Canadian company’s vaccine candidate with the others using a placebo. The subjects were all 18 and older and were given two doses of the vaccine 21 days apart.
Innovation Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne told the Canadian Press that he was impressed by how Canada has built up vaccine manufacturing infrastructure in a short time. The Canadian government has invested $173 million in Medicago’s vaccine candidate. Medicago’s current production facility is based in North Carolina, but the company is in the midst of building a global production facility in Quebec by the end of 2023.
“We’re seeing a renewed interest in bringing some of that (manufacturing) capacity back into the country,” Ward said. “I think there is a commitment.”
The vaccine was developed in partnership with Medicago British-American vaccine giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). For Ward, the phase 3 results show the power of Canadian ingenuity and research if provided the correct resources.
“We’re a small group of people, we’re a small company. And I think probably by a fair stretch we’re one of the smallest companies to successfully run a study of this size and complexity,” he said.
The landscape for vaccines in Canada has shifted from earlier in the pandemic when the country was struggling to secure doses. Now, with over 80 per cent of the population fully vaccinated and vaccines going to waste, Ward thinks Medicago’s vaccine candidate can play a role domestically, albeit a small one.
“Vaccine booster doses are needed to protect people,” Ward said. “There is data that shows mixing vaccines work well, too. I see that being the Canadian application.”
Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization has “strongly” recommended a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot for people 50 and older. The committee also recommended that booster shots of an mRNA vaccine be offered to adults ages 18 to 49 at least six months after their second dose.
Health Canada does have an agreement in place with Medicago for an initial purchase of 20 million doses with an ability to increase to 76 million, if needed. But, to Ward and Medicago, they think that their best way forward will be to provide global vaccine relief after receiving authorization.
“There is a global need for vaccines,” Ward said. “Less than one half of the world’s population has had access to vaccines so far so that there are still billions of doses that are needed. We would like to be able to contribute.”
Even the vaccines produced for Canadians can be used globally depending on the discretion of the federal government, according to Ward.
“Canada would make the decision on how to use those vaccines, and we are in negotiation with other countries,” he said.
— with files from the Canadian Press