The World Health Organization has rejected Medicago’s COVID-19 vaccine because of the company’s ties to the tobacco industry, a major blow that will substantially limit the vaccine’s availability around the world.
The unfavourable decision, which was expected, raises new questions about the federal government’s 2020 decision to invest $173-million in Medicago, given that Philip Morris Investments, a subsidiary of tobacco giant Philip Morris, has a one-third ownership stake in the Quebec City-based company.
In a briefing last week, a WHO official said it was pausing the review into Medicago in light of the tobacco- industry involvement.
On Thursday, a WHO spokesperson told The Globe and Mail in an e-mail that Medicago’s request for an emergency-use listing – aimed at expediting the availability of vaccines around the world during public-health emergencies – has been denied. He said the decision was made “because of the linkage with the tobacco industry and WHO’s strict policy on not engaging with companies that promote tobacco.”
An emergency-use listing is required in order for vaccines to be used by COVAX, a global initiative to share vaccines with low- and middle-income countries.
The spokesperson added that WHO management will continue to discuss the Medicago situation and how it ties into a wider problem of the tobacco industry’s trend toward investing in health.
In a trial done by the company, the Medicago vaccine Covifenz was 71-per-cent effective against all variants of the virus, except for Omicron, which was not circulating when the trial was conducted. There are some indications the vaccine produces neutralizing antibodies against Omicron and the company has said it will work to modify the vaccine as needed.
On Thursday, Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne said Ottawa is working with Medicago to find a solution to get the vaccine to market. The company is aware that the connection to Philip Morris presents a problem.
“I have spoken to the CEO a number of times and we are looking at potential solutions,” Mr. Champagne said in an interview. “There will be a solution.”
He suggested Medicago is talking to Philip Morris about the tobacco giant disinvesting.
“The shareholding … is something we are going to try to work with the company to find a solution,” he said. “We certainly want them to be successful and we want to play a role in global health and having a plant-based vaccine is something you want to have in your portfolio of technology.”
In a statement on Thursday, Takashi Nagao, president and CEO of Medicago, said he is aware of the decision and is awaiting more details from the WHO, at which point the company will discuss potential next steps with its board and shareholders.
Health Canada approved Covifenz, the first made-in-Canada COVID-19 vaccine, last month. So far, Canada is the only country to approve the vaccine and the WHO decision could put its future use in jeopardy.
The major point of contention is the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a treaty signed by Canada and nearly 200 other countries that prohibits collaboration with the tobacco industry.
Health Canada spokesperson Anne Génier said in an e-mail Thursday that the government believes it’s in compliance with the treaty, which states that tobacco-control health policy can’t involve the tobacco industry. She said that does not preclude investment in vaccine development.
But according to the WHO’s treaty-implementation guidelines, signatories shouldn’t let any branch of government accept contributions from the tobacco industry or those working with it. The implementation guidelines also state that signatories should not “endorse, support, form partnerships with or participate in activities of the tobacco industry described as socially responsible.”
Anti-tobacco advocates say the deal represents a clear breach of the treaty.
“This is the kind of behaviour we’ve come to expect from tobacco companies, playing fast and loose with the rules,” said Les Hagen, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health, referring to Philip Morris’s investment in Medicago. “What’s disturbing about this is there’s a government involved in collaboration with a tobacco company.”
Mr. Hagen said many of the other countries signed onto the treaty may decide not to use the Covifenz vaccine because of the controversy.
Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc., the Canadian subsidiary of Philip Morris International, did not respond to a request for comment.
When the WHO declared a pandemic in March, 2020, Mr. Champagne said Ottawa wanted to invest in all the families of vaccines and that Medicago was a promising plant-based version.
The fact that Philip Morris was an investor in the company was not taken into account at the time, he said.
“We chose to invest in a company which had a plant-based vaccine which was recommended by experts as the one that was most promising,” Mr. Champagne said.
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