Research into plant-based rapid diagnostic Covid-19 test kits, which aim to provide an affordable alternative to developing nations, has been given a major financial boost from Europe to the tune of approximately R900 million. A variety of Nicotiana – commonly referred to as the tobacco plant – forms part of the clinical trials being carried out by a South African company.

As the global race to combat Covid-19 reaches a critical stage amid a burgeoning second wave, the urgent rollout of affordable rapid testing kits and vaccines is of particular concern to emerging economies. While multinational pharmaceutical companies vie for top spot in the vaccine contest, a small local company is looking to provide equitable access to Covid-19 tests and treatments.

With roots in the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Biopharming Research Unit, the local biotech lab – which studies biological modifications as an answer to questions of immunology and genomics – has caught the attention of European investors.

The European Investment Bank (EIB), the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND), and local funding initiatives recently pumped almost R900 million into Cape Bio Pharms to further Covid-19 antigen and antibody research. The EIB funding, which accounts for 70% of the total project cost, will be used to open a new Covid-19 research facility, operated by Cape Biologix Technologies, a subsidiary of Cape Bio Pharms, in Mauritius.

Funding from FIND, which covers a further 7% of the project costs, will be used to scale-up the pilot production programme currently underway in Cape Town. Remaining costs have been covered by the kENUP Foundation and South Africa’s University Technology Fund (UTF) among others.

The Mauritius facility will feature laboratories, processing plants, and climate controlled hydroponic grow rooms to provide stable plant-made proteins to combat Covid-19. Cape Bio Pharms’ research has focused extensively on the use of Nicotiana benthamiana – which is often referred to as the “cousin” of tobacco, containing nicotine and similar alkaloids – as bioreactor to produce Covid-19 proteins and antibodies.

Nicotiana benthamiana, which is indigenous to Australia and was commonly used as a stimulant, although not through smoking, before the arrival of commercial tobacco, has impressive biopharming properties. This hardy tobacco variant is ideal because of its ability to be adjust well to genetic engineering and its superior rate of protein reproduction.

Cape Biologix Technologies aims to turn the Nicotiana benthamiana plants into antibody production centres which can later be extracted and applied to use in rapid antigen tests and even vaccines.

British American Tobacco’s (BAT) biotechnology division recently confirmed that it was also exploring the latter, after receiving approval from the US Food and Drug Administration.

In contrast with global testing and treatment efforts, Cape Bio Pharms’ aim is to produce the most cost-effective solution – while still maintaining efficacy – as the issue of affordability remains paramount, particularly in Africa.

“Cape Bio Pharms, the holding company of Cape Biologix, has successfully shown how plant protein can quickly and economically produce proteins essential for disease testing and therapy,” explained Belinda Shaw, the chief executive of Cape Bio Pharms.

Speaking at the virtual announcement on 18 December, UCT’s vice-chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, said that funds provided by the EIB and FIND would assist developing nations in combatting the coronavirus.

“I am very proud to see my country and my continent recognised in this way by the EIB, which is supporting the ability of African-based research, technology and investment to address the critical health needs we all share,” said Phakeng.

“This is also a commitment to the poor around the world who will benefit from this innovation.”

Rapid antigen tests detect viral proteins associated with Covid-19 through samples gathered from the respiratory tract. Results can be determined within 30 minutes.

Plant-based vaccines, like the one being studied by Cape Bio Pharms, has the advantage of being stable at room temperature unlike the Pfizer/BioNTech dose which needs to be kept at -70°C.