M Zahidul Haque
IN April 2020, an international media reported that the British-American Tobacco’s biotech subsidiary, Kentucky Bio Processing has started working on a potential vaccine for the novel coronavirus from tobacco plant. Corona vaccine from Tobacco? One would definitely get skeptical because tobacco is considered a curse to the humankind. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) tobacco kills more than 8 million people around the globe of which 7 million deaths are the result of direct tobacco use while 1.2 million die due to exposure to second-hand smoking. Meanwhile recently it has been gathered from the press that a potential COVID-19 vaccine using tobacco leaves is ready for human trials and the concerned company is awaiting approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They also claimed that they could produce 1 to 3 million doses of the vaccine per week provided they receive the support of government agencies plus the appropriate manufacturers.
Some smokers having seen this news might get impressed and excited! But there is no point to be so. Because the vaccine is actually produced from the protein extracts of tobacco plant leaves, not from the toxic nicotine and other heavy metals the tobacco leaves contain. It is known that smoking of tobacco causes damage to the cardiovascular system increasing the risks of heart diseases and stroke.
Apart from the hazardous contents of tobacco, tobacco plants have some elements for medicinal use. In fact, like other nightshade families (Solanaceae) which includes aubergine (brinjal), peppers, tomatoes and potatoes, tobacco has some medicinal values too.
According to WHO, plant-derived vaccines can be produced cheaply in very high amounts and these contain less harmful materials. The process followed to preparing the corona vaccine includes: cloning of a portion of the novel coronavirus’s genetic sequences and injecting that into the tobacco plants.
The outcome is the development of a potential antigen capable of generating an immune response in the human body to fight against the virus. If the vaccine so produced really works, it would create a history on the human efforts to combating the novel coronavirus COVID-19 disease.
Meanwhile the “World No Tobacco Day” would be observed on May 31, 2020, with the theme—“Protecting youth from industry manipulation and preventing them from tobacco and nicotine”. The Government of Bangladesh is contemplating imposing a temporary ban on the production and marketing of tobacco products in view of the prevailing corona pandemic.
It is sincerely expected that use of tobacco products including cigarettes would be controlled while if the tobacco vaccine witnesses a success against COVID-19, alternative uses of tobacco for producing corona vaccine and other medicinal products would get momentum in Bangladesh.
(The author is a Professor in the Department of Agricultural Extension & Information System, Sher–Bangla Agricultural University, Dhaka)
M Zahidul Haque