While large companies and public sector consortiums in the United States, Canada, China and Europe are running at full speed to develop a vaccine grown in genetically modified (GM) tobacco plants, a research group at a Mexican university is working toward the same objective, but with a different and innovative strategy. One of them is Medicago, whose CEO claimed the Canadian company would be able to manufacture “ 10 million doses per month ” if its innovative production method and clinical trials obtain US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. Genetically modified crops — still at the experimental, not commercial, level — used to create “ edible vaccines ” range from potato, tomato, lettuce, papaya, carrot and rice to quinoa, alfalfa, banana and algae. Source: Rosales-Mendoza, 2020 This route was the one chosen by Daniel Garza, a young biotechnologist and entrepreneur with a research stay at the Institute of Biotechnology of the Autonomous University of Nueva León (UANL) in Mexico, as an approach to developing a vaccine against COVID-19. However, due to the contingency and severity of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, Garza’s group decided to dedicate its efforts to work on the bioinformatic modeling of a potential vaccine for this pathogen, using the same strategy used against the Ebola virus through the development of an edible tomato as an immunization method. “We are at the analysis stage, using the genomic and proteomic sequences of SARS-CoV-2 and using bioinformatic tools that allow us to identify the antigens most likely to be candidates to induce an immune response,” Garza said in regard to the current status of efforts to develop a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in tomato plants. Beyond eliminating the annoying “prick” of a needle, using fruits or edible plants to immunize people against diseases offers several benefits, including reduced production costs since there is no need for treatment or purification prior to oral administration. The fact that so many countries lack legislation, or use backward and cumbersome regulatory frameworks, such as the one employed by the European Union , could increase the final cost of bringing the edible vaccine from the laboratory to the market, making it difficult for small and medium-sized companies or public institutions to develop this technology. Paradoxically, if the investigation into this promising edible vaccine — created in the Mexican public sector — progresses successfully, it is highly likely that its development towards the clinical phase and productive escalation would move north, to the US or Canada, where companies are already working in molecular pharming aimed at COVID-19 and have the world’s most agile GMO regulatory frameworks. Perhaps this race against time and the urgency of finding a viable vaccine for COVID-19 will enable GM plants to save millions of lives and clear their reputations, unfairly stained and demonized by fear and disinformation, once and for all.
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