Taskforce tests market for plant-based vaccines centre

Scientists could infect potatoes and corn plants with antigens that allow them to grow vaccines

The Government is considering plans for a manufacturing centre for cheaper, edible plant-based vaccines in an attempt to fight off future pandemics.

Official filings show the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is testing the market over proposals to “develop a new vaccine production base, which does not exist today, capable of switching between Covid-19 and flu vaccine production”.

The department has called on potential suppliers to explore the feasibility of the plans and gauge the level of funding needed for the “creation of a means of providing the UK with future pandemic preparedness”.

Plant-based vaccines work by infecting plant cells with antigens that trigger an immune response to viruses, effectively allowing vaccines to be “grown”.

According to the World Health Organisation, such vaccines can be produced cheaply in high quantities, while carrier plants such as potatoes and corn are easily accepted by patients. They are also easily stored for long periods of time, unlike the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine that must be kept at -80 degrees.

The Government’s Vaccine Taskforce could move to a formal tender process next year, depending on market feedback.

Ministers have already spent £93m on the Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre at Harwell in Oxfordshire, due to open next year, as well as £38m on a rapid deployment facility to begin production sooner.

A BEIS spokesman said: “Plant-derived vaccines could offer an alternative approach to conventionally produced pharmaceuticals and we are at the early stages of looking for companies who may be capable of bringing this technology to the UK.”