World Health Organization ‘likely’ to reject Canadian-developed COVID vaccine over tobacco ties, official says

The World Health Organization will “very likely” reject the only Canadian-developed COVID-19 vaccine for use globally because of its ties to tobacco giant Philip Morris International, a top WHO official said Wednesday.

Health Canada greenlit the dose made by Quebec-based Medicago less than a month ago. The vaccine, which is manufactured using a cousin of a tobacco plant — one the company has stresses cannot be smoked — was found to be 71 per cent effective against symptomatic COVID in trials.

While there’s no tobacco in the shot and the average recipient would never go near one of the plants used to make it, the ownership of the company appears to have raised eyebrows in Geneva.

Japanese pharmaceutical company Mitsubishi Tanabe holds a majority stake in Medicago, at 79 per cent, according to a Medicago spokesperson.

Meanwhile, Philip Morris International, best known for the tobacco products it has sold around the globe, owns 21 per cent.

“It’s well known that WHO and UN has a very strict policy regarding the engagement with tobacco and arms industry,” Dr. Mariangela Simao, the WHO’s assistant director general for access to medicines and health products told media Wednesday.

That means that, for now, Medicago’s application to be considered for what is essentially emergency use is “on hold,” though she said it was “very likely” that it wouldn’t be accepted for emergency use by the WHO.

While this won’t affect the dose’s availability in Canada, it could hamstring its use overseas.

The Star has reached out to Medicago and Phillip Morris International for comment.

Medicago is the only Canadian-developed vaccine to be authorized so far. The federal government has also prepurchased as many as 76 million doses and given the company $173 million to speed the construction of a manufacturing plant in Quebec City.

In an email, a spokesperson for Health Canada said it has “studied the matter of the Government of Canada’s investment in Medicago carefully.”

There is a WHO convention that requires countries to protect “public health policies with respect to tobacco control” from the commercial interests of the tobacco industry itself, the spokesperson noted, but Canada considers itself to be abiding by that rule here.

Specifically, the convention should not prevent the country from working with Medicago to ensure “a ready and effective supply of vaccines,” the spokesperson said.

Although wealthy countries such as Canada have their own drug regulators that make the final decision about whether or not a vaccine should be made available in their countries, the WHO vets drugs on behalf of countries that aren’t able to do so.

Notably, all COVID vaccines distributed through the international vaccine-sharing scheme known as COVAX must have WHO authorization, meaning Canada would likely not be able to share the Medicago doses it has purchased with poorer countries through that process.

The WHO has a framework that lays out how and when it is allowed to work with “non-State actors.” A copy of that document from 2016 states that the WHO “does not engage with the tobacco industry or non-State actors that work to further the interests of the tobacco industry.” Their policy for the arms industry is the same.

At least one antismoking advocate says tobacco companies should be applauded, not punished, for changing their stripes.

“The reason we were attacking cigarette companies all of my career was because they behaved in a reprehensible way that was causing a lot of unnecessary death and disease,” says David Sweanor, an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa and longtime legal counsel for health activist groups who worked to reduce smoking.

“How do you react when they do something that actually reduces death and disease? And how can you have any credibility if you just attack them for the good work they do?”


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