The World Health Organization has decided not to accept the Medicago COVID-19 vaccine from Quebec for emergency use, citing the company’s links to big tobacco.
The decision was expected, as the World Health Organization temporarily halted the prequalification process for the company’s new Covifenz dose last week. Marlboro cigarette manufacturer, Philip Morris International, is a shareholder in a Quebec City-based company.
In a statement to CBC News on Friday, the World Health Organization said the company’s request to list emergency uses for its vaccine was not accepted, leaving it outside the Global Access to COVID-19 Vaccines (COVAX) program, a global vaccine-sharing initiative.
Medicago says it has received an email with the WHO’s “preliminary decision” and is awaiting additional information, at which point the company will discuss next steps with its partners and shareholders to get the vaccine to market.
“We understand that this decision is related to Medicago’s minority shareholders and not the demonstrated safety and efficacy profile of our COVID-19 vaccine,” President and CEO Takashi Nagao said in a statement Friday.
Philip Morris Investments, a subsidiary of the tobacco giant, currently owns approximately 21 percent of the company’s stock.
The WHO said it is currently exploring different policy options for potentially valid health products that are linked to the tobacco industry and will “make a decision soon”.
The World Health Organization said this means Medicago could still be considered for its emergency uses list, as well as other products in the future.
There will be a solution
In an interview on Thursday, Innovation Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said the federal government was working with Medicago to find a solution “because we want this vaccine to be available to the world.”
Champagne said the company recognizes that its involvement in the tobacco industry is a problem, and hinted that it had been talking to Philip Morris about its divestment.
“Contribute […] “It is something we will try to work with the company. There will be a solution,” he said.
The Canadian government invested $173 million in the company in 2020 to help it develop the vaccine and develop its production facility in Quebec. It also signed a deal to buy 20 million doses of the vaccine, with an option for another 56 million doses.
In a statement on Friday, a Champagne spokesperson said the federal government had performed “significant due diligence” when considering the Medicago investment opportunity.
“The ownership structure has been determined so as not to prevent investment in the project,” the spokesman said in a statement.
Canada is the only country so far to have approved the shot, which is expected to be available to the public in May.
Clinical trials showed that the vaccine’s overall effectiveness rate against all virus variants studied was 71 percent. The Omicron variant was not widely circulated when the experiments were conducted.
The vaccine was approved for use by Health Canada in February for adults ages 18 to 64.
Canada’s international donations are at risk
The WHO’s decision comes at “a low cost” regarding Canada’s ability to meet its international commitments to donate vaccines, according to Montreal infectious disease specialist Dr. Matthew Oughton.
“Without the approval of the World Health Organization, it would be much more difficult to deliver vaccines in low- and middle-income countries,” he said, noting that about 85 percent of this population did not receive even a single dose of the vaccine.
Medicago, the only plant-based COVID-19 vaccine approved for use in Canada, will add another 20 million doses to the COVAX Alliance.
The office of Quebec Health Minister Christian Dube described the WHO’s decision as “unfortunate news”.
“The Medicago vaccine is reliable and effective. We can be proud of it!” reads a statement. But, the minister’s spokesperson said, it is up to the company to take steps to get it approved worldwide.