Although there are many companies pursuing a vaccine for COVID-19, the tobacco industry may be one of the more surprising combatants in this battle.

Both British American Tobacco (NYSE:BTI) and Philip Morris International (NYSE:PM) are working on a vaccine for the disease. That's ironic because not only are tobacco companies routinely vilified for the harm to health their primary products cause, but also because smokers have an elevated risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Yet it might be the very nature of their association that could allow them to succeed.

Worker drying tobacco leaves

Image source: Getty Images.

A not-unfamiliar position

Unlike automakers or cosmetics companies converting production facilities to make personal protective equipment, it's not the actual manufacturing units of the tobacco companies working to fight COVID-19, but rather their biotech divisions.

The tobacco giants have formidable biotech units that are actually no stranger in battles against infectious disease. But these operations are perhaps unknown to many investors because they don't take a prominent role in the production of cigarettes.

British American's Kentucky BioProcessing, for example, was instrumental in helping to develop one of the most successful antidotes to the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In partnership with Arizona State University and Mapp Biopharmaceutical, Kentucky BioProcessing began "pharming" Mapp's ZMapp drug, which was credited with saving the lives of two U.S. missionaries in Liberia who were infected with Ebola. According to the university, "Within 24 hours after taking ZMapp ... [they] went from death's door to walking again."

Kentucky BioProcessing's role was to grow the ZMapp antidote in a tobacco plant, a process that British American says generates a vaccine faster, taking only a matter of weeks rather than months.

Plant-based alternatives

British American, the owner of cigarette brands including Lucky Strike, Kent, and Pall Mall, is taking a similar approach to its development of a COVID-19 vaccine. Bloomberg reports Kentucky BioProcessing has cloned a portion of the virus' genetic sequence, which led to the production of antibodies that are subsequently being inserted into tobacco plants for production. British American said Kentucky BioProcessing will not be making a profit on a COVID-19 vaccine.

Bloomberg also reported Philip Morris International is similarly working to develop a plant-based vaccine through its own biotech division, Medicago. The company says vaccines developed in plants are not rejected by the body, but instead allow them to develop immune responses while preventing the virus from infecting the body or replicating itself. 

Medicago, named after a plant commonly known as medick, expects to initiate human trials by this summer and submit the drug to regulators for approval by November 2021.

A global commitment

With much of the world still on lockdown and millions of people testing positive for the coronavirus, over 100 companies are moving quickly to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. There is hope that Moderna (NASDAQ:MRNA), with its mRNA-1273 vaccine, might be one of the first to achieve success.

British American Tobacco's vaccine candidate is ready for human trials, and with Food and Drug Administration approval, those tests could begin next month. While some might consider it the height of irony if a tobacco company were to win the race for a COVID-19 vaccine, even the most optimistic participants don't expect we'll have one before next year.

That means many of the temporary health and safety protocols we've adopted will need to become a more permanent part of our routine. 

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.