“Your next vaccine could be grown in a tobacco plant”

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The Story

“Your next vaccine could be grown in a tobacco plant”
by Jess Craig
National Geographic, July 07, 2021

The Pitch

I am writing to pitch a short news feature that will shed light on the rise of plant-based vaccine technology. Pitch is below! Thanks for your consideration.

Your next vaccine could be grown in a plant

In Durham, North Carolina, there is a laboratory that could easily be mistaken for a greenhouse. Rows and rows of tobacco leaves grow under the watchful eyes of scientists in white hazmat suits who periodically walk through to harvest leaves. This isn’t ordinary tobacco though; they are transgenic plants being used to grow viral particles for influenza, Ebola, and COVID-19 vaccines.

The pandemic has exposed an urgent need to up our vaccine production game, and scientists and analysts are betting that plant-based vaccines are the way to go.

Today, most vaccines are grown in chicken embryos. Take the flu vaccine. Most flu vaccines work by exposing the human immune system to a dead, or inactivated, flu virus. To get enough flu vaccine, you need a lot of flu virus to kill, and to grow a flu virus you need something living to grow it in. So scientists inject flu virus into chicken eggs and as the egg grows into an embryo, the virus makes millions of copies of itself. Scientists then isolate those billions of viruses and purify and kill them. The problem is: this process is time-consuming and requires a lot of eggs! Cell-based vaccines, such as all 3 major COVID-19 vaccines available in the US, are grown in lab-grown cell lines rather than eggs, and plant-based vaccines use plants instead of eggs and cells.

Plant-based vaccines are faster and cheaper to produce than traditional vaccines, eliminating several barriers and challenges to global vaccination such as inaccessibility in developing countries and the introduction of viral mutations in the interim between the arrival of a virus and vaccine development which render traditional vaccines less effective.

The first and only plant-based vaccine currently used in the US is for Newcastle virus disease in poultry and was first developed in 2006. But more are in the pipeline. Researchers are growing vaccines in everything from carrots and potatoes to tobacco. Last October, the first plant-based vaccine, which is for the flu, successfully passed phase 3 clinical trials and is now pending final approval in Canada. It is likely to be ready for the next flu season. In just 20 days last June, the Canadian company Medicago developed a COVID-19 vaccine grown in a tobacco plant which has shown promising results in an ongoing phase 3 clinical trial. The plant-based vaccine market is currently worth $43.7 million and is poised to reach almost $600 million in the next seven years, according to Coherent Market Insights.

The story will be focused on Medicago’s development of either the influenza vaccine or COVID-19 vaccine, which show the most promise for immediate commercial use. I am planning to visit Medicago’s lab in either Durham, NC or Quebec City, Canada, and that trip will inform the narrative thrust of the piece.

About myself: I am a former microbiologist and now freelance journalist. My work has appeared in Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera, Newsweek, and The New Humanitarian, among other publications.

Please let me know if you might be interested or have any questions.

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