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Medicago Vaccine: The First Plant-Based COVID-19 Vaccine Produced in Canada

The Medicago vaccine has been authorized by Health Canada for individuals ages 18 to 64 years old. It was developed by the Quebec-based company, Medicago Inc., making it the first locally produced COVID-19 vaccine. 

On February 24, 2022, the country added the Medicago Covifenz vaccine to its roster of COVID-19 vaccines. This was done after a thorough and independent scientific review of the evidence submitted by Medicago Inc. The Medicago vaccine has passed all of the criteria established by Health Canada in terms of safety, efficacy, and quality. Ultimately, it was decided that the use of the Medicago vaccine in the fight against COVID-19 had more benefits than potential risks.

However, authorization for the Medicago vaccine comes with terms and conditions. Specifically, Medicago Inc. needs to continuously monitor the safety and efficacy of the vaccine against the COVID-19 variants that are currently circulating and those that are considered emerging variants of concern. The manufacturer has to provide these pieces of information to Health Canada when they become available.

The Medicago Vaccine is the First COVID-19 Vaccine to Be Made with Plant-Based Protein Technology

The Medicago vaccine contains plant-based virus-like particles (VLP) of the original strain of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. The VLPs only imitate the structure of the COVID-19 virus, but do not contain its actual genetic material. When a host is exposed to the components of the Medicago vaccine, an immune response is triggered. As a result, antibodies to the COVID-19 virus will be produced without causing infection. 

In comparison to vaccines for other diseases that utilize VLPs, such as Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and Hepatitis B, the Medicago vaccine is the first one to make use of plant-based protein technology. 

Maggie Cole, a Biotech Greenhouse Specialist II, is seen watering tobacco seedlings in the Research Triangle Park at Medicago. This was taken as early as August 2014.

Dr. Supriya Sharma, Health Canada’s chief medical adviser, said that “the virus-like particles are grown in plants that are similar to tobacco plants, which can produce large amounts of the virus particles in a short period of time.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the use of plant-derived vaccines has many advantages. First, they can be produced in high volumes but at lower costs. Second, antigens from carrier plants can be stored for a longer period of time. Lastly, they are readily accepted by the patients to whom they’re administered. 

Who Can Get the Medicago Vaccine?

Only individuals who are 18 to 64 years old can get the Medicago vaccine. This is because clinical trials conducted by Medicago Inc. only included participants within the aforementioned age group. It was difficult to gather unvaccinated participants beyond the age of 65 since the vaccination program in the country prioritizes vulnerable populations. Because of this, many of these individuals had already been fully vaccinated by the time that the clinical trials were initiated. 

The effectiveness and safety for those younger than 18 years old and those over 64 years old are still yet to be determined. But Sharma said that they are in the process of coming up with this data. 

How Many Doses are Needed?

The Medicago vaccine is a two-dose regimen. There should be a 21-day interval between the administration of the first and second doses.

What are the Ingredients of the Medicago Vaccine?

There are 3.75 micrograms of the plant-based VLP of SARS-CoV-2 spike (S) protein and 0.25 milliliters of the AS03 adjuvant in each of the doses. The AS03 adjuvant includes DL-alpha-tocopherol, squalene, polysorbate 80, and phosphate buffered saline.

Apart from those, the Medicago vaccine also contains the following: potassium phosphate monobasic anhydrous, anhydrous, sodium chloride, sodium phosphate dibasic anhydrous, and water.

the Medicago vaccine utilizes plant-based technology

Given this, it may be best for individuals with known allergies to any of the ingredients listed above to consult with a primary care physician. They should obtain medical clearance prior to getting the Medicago vaccine.

Is the Medicago Vaccine Effective?

Clinical trials, which had 30,000 study participants, showed promising results for the Medicago vaccine. It was 71% effective in protecting individuals from the ages of 18 to 64 against symptomatic infection with COVID-19. All of the participants, or 100%, were also protected against severe COVID-19. This was observed within a short period of one week after the administration of the second dose.

However, these studies were conducted during the period of time when the Alpha, Gamma, Lambda, Delta, and Mu were the only COVID-19 variants circulating in the community. The Omicron variant had not yet emerged at that time.

Despite this, Medicago Inc. is conducting preliminary laboratory studies to determine the effectiveness of the vaccine against the Omicron variant, with initial results showing the production of sufficient antibodies to it. More confirmatory data will be made available in the months to come.

Marc-André D’Aoust, the Executive Vice President of Innovation, Development, and Medical Affairs at Medicago, said that “we will generate Omicron-specific vaccine efficacy data soon, and in parallel we’re also collecting immunogenicity data, antibody response from our vaccine against Omicron.”

What are the Side Effects from the Medicago Vaccine?

The side effects observed from the Medicago vaccine were not any different from those reported for the COVID-19 vaccines that have already been in use for the past months. These include both local and systemic symptoms, such as the following:

  • Redness, soreness, and swelling at the site of injection
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Joint aches
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches 
  • Mild fever
  • Nasal congestion
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Nausea
  • diarrhea

Severe allergic reactions, though rare, may also occur. As such, it is important to be aware of the symptoms so that prompt medical treatment can be given.

  • Hives
  • Swollen lips, face, tongue, or airway
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Sudden drop in blood pressure
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms such as pain in the abdomen, vomiting, and diarrhea

How Will Individuals Know if They’re Experiencing Side Effects from the Vaccine?

If an individual experiences any of the aforementioned symptoms upon administration of any of the COVID-19 vaccines, it would be best to seek medical advice to prevent any untoward conditions

The same must be done if an individual develops symptoms that were not present prior to the administration of the COVID-19 vaccine, or if the symptoms persist or worsen over time.

When Will the Medicago Vaccine be Available in Canada?

Dr. Marc Berthiaume, Health Canada’s Director of the Bureau of Medical Sciences, said that the rollout of the Medicago Vaccine is expected to start in the middle of the month of May. The country will receive 76 million doses of the vaccine. 

Given this, Canada will be more reliant on local production of COVID-19 vaccines. This will make the country less susceptible to the consequences of volatility in the global market. 

Mina Tadrous, assistant professor at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto, said that “it’s great that we developed our own capacity to develop vaccines inside Canada. I think we’ve seen throughout the pandemic that having both the capacity to produce and develop new therapeutics and vaccines is essential.”

The addition of another COVID-19 vaccine is one of the ways in which the country continues to fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. With increasing primary vaccination and booster rates, provinces across the country are more confident in the safe reopening of the economy. This can help citizens and residents live with the COVID-19 virus without putting their own lives and the lives of their loved ones at risk.

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