While large companies and public sector consortiums in the United States, Canada, China and Europe are running at full speed to develop a vaccine grown in genetically modified (GM) tobacco plants, a research group at a Mexican university is working toward the same objective, but with a different and innovative strategy. They are using bioinformatics and computational genetic engineering to identify candidate antigens for a vaccine that can be expressed in tomato plants. Eating the fruit from these plants would then confer immunity against COVID-19.
At the time I write these lines, there are already more than 3.6 million people reportedly infected by the COVID19 pandemic and some 252,000 deaths globally. In the US, which has the world’s highest rate of infection, COVID-19 deaths have surpassed deaths from cancer, coronary heart disease and even influenza/pneumonia in just the few months since the novel coronavirus arrived.
This critical situation has led the entire world to embark on a real race to develop a vaccine that immunizes the population against this new strain of coronavirus, which apparently emerged in the autumn of 2019 in China. So far, more than 100 vaccines are being investigated for COVID-19 by universities, public research centers and especially private companies. Some are already under clinical trial.
The approaches used for their production don’t differ much from the ones classically used in vaccines, where the antigens — a compound of the pathogen used to generate immunity in the patient — can be the inactivated virus, as well as the genetic material or a virus protein, which is grown on a large scale in chicken eggs, mammalian/insect cell tissue or genetically modified microorganisms.