Be wary of working with Big Tobacco, says WHO

British American Tobacco has claimed that if all goes well with the biotechnology with government co-operation it could soon produce up to three million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine each week

The World Health Organisation has warned governments about engaging with the tobacco industry over the development of coronavirus vaccines.

British American Tobacco, whose cigarette brands include Lucky Stripe and Dunhill, said this month that it had made a significant breakthrough in developing a potential plant-based vaccine candidate for COVID-19.

However, vaccines from Big Tobacco would pose a dilemma for public health officials and governments. Under the WHO’s framework convention on tobacco control, members are restricted in dealing with the industry.

The global health body said that “partnership with the tobacco industry undermines governments’ credibility in protecting population health as there is ‘a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests’.”

It said that countries including Britain that had ratified the framework in 2004 “should take steps to prevent any interference by the tobacco industry . . . The key point for addressing tobacco industry interference is to reject partnerships and non-binding or non-enforceable agreements with the tobacco industry at any times.”

It also said that the tobacco industry was trying to be “part of the solution, proposing support and donations” to countries to improve its corporate image by showing “social responsibility to the population, media and decision makers”, with governments “struggling with a lack of resources and limited supplies of medical equipment during the Covid-19 pandemic”.

The London-listed BAT, which generated profits of £9 billion last year, has joined the race to develop a vaccine that involves companies worldwide. Its vaccine is being developed with Kentucky Bio Processing, its American biotechnology subsidiary. It said this month that it was in pre-clinical testing and wanted to form partnerships with government agencies on the non-profit project to help to bring its vaccine to human trials, possibly by next month.

David O’Reilly, director of scientific research at BAT, has said that the company has contacted healthcare departments to offer access to its research and planned to contact the WHO.

The government, which has established a vaccine taskforce including industry and academics, is in contact with the tobacco company and other coronavirus vaccine ventures.

If testing “goes well”, through collaborations with government and third-party manufacturers between one and three million doses per week could be manufactured from June, the company said. Clinical studies typically take more than a year.

Dr O’Reilly said that history would take a dim view if the company had not told anybody that it had technology that could be deployed rapidly to help to tackle a pandemic.

Medicago, a biotechnology specialist based in Quebec and partly owned by Philip Morris International, the maker of Marlboro, is also striving to develop a vaccine for the virus.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive Action on Smoking and Health, an anti-smoking charity, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic is a disaster, there have been over 40,000 deaths since it started and rising — but we mustn’t forget that the tobacco epidemic still kills over 22,000 people a day.”


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