Biotechnology companies across the globe are advancing scores of clinical trials in the race to develop effective vaccines and therapies that can be used against the novel coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease it causes. Results from those tests are also trickling out into the news media, offering the public a view of possible vaccine design and manufacture. 

British American Tobacco (NYSE:BTI), through Kentucky Bioprocessing (KBP) and Reynolds American, is working toward a vaccine against COVID-19 that's being manufactured in tobacco plants. Tobacco plants are considered excellent platforms for producing vaccines at a low cost. 

Kentucky Bioprocessing: a producer of pharmaceutical proteins

Kentucky Bioprocessing specializes in the production of pharmaceutical proteins grown with the use of plants. These proteins can be components of antibodies, hormones, enzymes, and (of course) vaccines. The company's COVID-19 vaccine will prove additionally useful as an experiment regarding the speed of commercialization for such essential medicines.

Person getting shot in arm

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Kentucky Bioprocessing says that once approved for commercial production, its method of producing vaccines via tobacco plants could shorten the manufacturing timetable to as few as six weeks. Before such approval, the vaccine must go through tests; after production was announced in the first quarter of this year, the company now believes the vaccine is ready for phase 1 clinical trials. These will determine the ideal dose amount that provides a benefit while minimizing side effects.

A plant design

Kentucky Bioprocessing uses Nicotiana benthamiana, a herbaceous plant similar to the tobacco plant that isn't used in smoking-related products. Instead, this variety of plant is used to create recombinant proteins for use in vaccines.

A "standard" COVID-19 vaccine could take 12 to 18 months to design and enter into clinical tests. British American Tobacco's vaccine candidate could substantially shorten that timeline -- the company has already submitted a pre-investigative new drug application to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has acknowledged the submission. The company is also looking to other world governments for support for the vaccine.

Big tobacco fighting for a vaccine share

Medicago, a biotech company in Quebec, is developing a coronavirus vaccine using the same variety of plants. Medicago is a joint venture between business units of Philip Morris International (NYSE:PM) and Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings Corporation. On May 15, the company announced that its vaccine candidate for COVID-19 had produced a positive antibody response after 10 days in vivo during single dosing of mice. 

The company produced a virus-like particle just 20 days after acquiring a gene of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, then initiated pre-clinical testing. Medicago notes that it is bidding for a phase 1 clinical trial in the summer, which will evolve toward phase 2 studies by the end of 2020. 

Broadly speaking

British American Tobacco is a buy. Its COVID-19 vaccine is a sign that the cross-industry development of coronavirus therapies and vaccines will be necessary for economic recovery. However, these things will also be affected by the unpredictability of the development of promising vaccine candidates. 

For The Hill, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that an aggressive investment into production of any successful vaccine could make it possible to distribute millions of doses as 2020 ends. Fauci noted that this is an "aspirational" goal and that vaccine candidates fail more often than they succeed. 

Fauci's comments offer investors insight into the urgency of the need for a COVID-19 vaccine, the development of which is taking place across industries. Tobacco companies including British American Tobacco and Philip Morris International are getting new attention for their work to develop plant-based vaccines for COVID-19. Healthcare investors should keep an eye on the progress of phase 1 trials to evaluate whether tobacco-based vaccines can deliver on the promises they offer.

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.