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Philip Morris ejected from Canadian vaccine collaboration

Tony Kirby

Anti-tobacco advocates are celebrating after tobacco company Philip Morris International was finally ejected from a collaboration producing the only COVID-19 vaccine to be manufactured in Canada—Covifenz. The Montreal-based COVID-19 vaccine developer Medicago announced, in December, 2022, that majority shareholder Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma had removed Philip Morris as a secondary investor, by buying out all of the tobacco company’s shares. The problems did not end there for Medicago. Beset by manufacturing and other organisational problems, and having not delivered a single dose commercially in Canada or beyond, Mitsubushi announced, as The Lancet Respiratory Medicine went to press, that Medicago was being closed down and the vaccine project discontinued.”

Anti-smoking groups and other observers had repeatedly questioned how Phillip Morris could possibly be involved in a vaccine initiative, since Canada is one of the 182 signatories to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which has clear advice stating signatories should avoid such collaborations that would in effect give a positive impression of big tobacco’s role in public health.

Adriana Blanco Marquizo, head of WHO FCTC, Geneva, Switzerland, told the The Lancet Respiratory Medicine “This is a definitely a welcome decision. The tobacco industry should not be involved in partnerships that lend credibility to the industry or could give them access to public health policy making.” However, when asked how the Canadian Government had allowed things to progress this far, she added, “It is not the role of the Secretariat of the WHO FCTC to comment on the activities or intentions of parties to the convention.”

Philip Morris’ investment in Medicago dates back to 2008, owning around one third of the company before being bought out last year. When the Canadian Federal Government announced it would invest CAN$173 million (US$130 million) in Medicago to develop a COVID vaccine in 2020, eyebrows were raised due to the shareholding of Phillip Morris. By February, 2022, Covifenz had already been approved for use in adults in Canada. Medicago had been set to proceed with international licensing of the vaccine with the involvement of Philip Morris until WHO announced, in March, 2022, that it would not approve the Canadian vaccine for use due to the part-ownership of the tobacco company. Health Canada, the country’s national health agency, issued a statement at that time denying that the situation violated Canada’s commitment to FCTC. But the WHO decision to block the vaccine led to the Quebec Provincial Government (where Medicago is based) announcing it would work with the Canadian Federal Government and partners to find a new way to resolve the situation.

Les Hagen is the executive director of Action on Smoking & Health (ASH), Edmonton, ALB, Canada, and, while relieved to see Philip Morris finally ejected, he has been frustrated that previous attempts by ASH and others to get this done sooner were repeatedly rejected. “Regarding the Canadian Federal Government’s involvement, it’s important to note that the initial announcement of the Medicago funding came directly from the Prime Minister’s Office”, explains Hagen. “All efforts to convince the Canadian Government to remove Phillip Morris from the collaboration were in vain with the sole exception of the WHO’s refusal to distribute the vaccine last March. The WHO decision was a game-changer. However, the WHO decision was not taken lightly or without the intervention of over 100 non-governmental organisation members of the Framework Convention Alliance (now the Global Alliance for Tobacco Control).”

“It should have been obvious from the beginning that WHO would have nothing to do with a consortium that included a tobacco company. It suggests that those involved in pushing this collaboration forward either failed to do due diligence or were somehow disconnected from reality”, says Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, UK. “One could read Article 5.3 of the FCTC narrowly and argue that these ventures fall outside its scope, as the Canadian authorities did. However, by doing so much to undermine science over decades, tobacco companies have a mountain to climb to gain public trust and, given this, are the last people you want near a vaccine programme.”

Covifenz is not the only intervention by Phillip Morris in the health sector. It bought the UK-based pharmaceutical company Vectura, which develops inhaled therapies for respiratory diseases, in September, 2021. This led to six respiratory societies (European Respiratory Society, American Thoracic Society, International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Diseases, Asian Pacific Society of Respirology, Asociación Latino Americana De Tórax, and Global Initiative for Asthma) announcing a ban on employees of tobacco-owned companies from featuring data in their journals, conferences, and other scientific meetings.

Asked about such takeovers, Blanco Marquizo said Article 5.3 of WHO FCTC analyses a range of scenarios in which big tobacco can attempt to enter public health, and advises countries who are signatories to the treaty “that they should remain vigilant to new and evolving ways in which the tobacco industry seeks to have a voice in the development and implementation of public health policies”.

Published by The Lancet

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