WHO rejects Medicago vaccine funded by $173 million from Trudeau government

At issue is a 21 percent shareholder in Quebec-based Medicago — Philip Morris, the biggest tobacco company in the world

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The World Health Organization has rejected the first Canadian-made COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use, despite its approval by Health Canada on Feb. 24.

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Known as Covifenz, the vaccine was developed by Medicago, a biotechnology company based in Quebec City that uses — unlike mRNA technology — a plant host to make virus-like particles that help the body’s immune system make antibodies.

In 2020, the Trudeau government invested $173-million in Medicago’s development of the home-grown vaccine and a production facility in Quebec City. It also contracted to buy 20 million doses.

At issue is a 21 percent shareholder in Medicago: Philip Morris, the biggest tobacco company in the world.

“We are aware that the WHO updated Medicago’s vaccine status to ‘not accepted’, Medicago President Takashi Nagao told Global News on Friday.

“We have received an email which indicated the WHO’s preliminary decision and informed us that official communication outlining the details and rationale would follow. Once we receive this, we will review the rationale and continue to discuss next steps with our partners and shareholders.

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“It is our understanding that this decision is linked to Medicago’s minority shareholder and not the demonstrated safety and efficacy profile of our COVID-19 vaccine.”

Last week, a senior WHO official said the UN body has strict policies about engaging with tobacco companies and arms manufacturers and, as such, the review process for Medicago was on hold and it was likely its vaccine would not be accepted for an emergency-use Licence.

Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne on Thursday told CBC that the federal government was working with Medicago to obtain WHO approval.

“The shareholding … is something we are going to try to work with the company,” Champagne said. “There will be a solution.”

The rejection effectively removes Covifenz from the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access program, a global vaccine-sharing initiative.

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Earlier this week, International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan said he wanted WHO to approve Medicago’s shot so Canada could donate it for use by COVAX.

On paper, Canada should have close to 100 million more doses available for donation to COVAX that were purchased for Canadians and cannot be used here.

But half are the Novavax vaccine that Canada has yet to confirm will be donated, and 20 million come from Medicago, which can only be donated if WHO agrees to approve that vaccine despite the company’s ties to big tobacco.

Health Canada authorized Medicago’s two-dose Covifenz vaccine in February for adults 18 to 64.

In clinical trials it was more than 70 per cent effective at preventing COVID-19 infections and 100 per cent effective against severe illness, before the Omicron wave.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 21, 2022.

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