Cigarette maker Philip Morris rolls vaccine interests into China

Craving growth in the huge market for tobacco products in China, Philip Morris International ($PM) has invested in rights to flu vaccines made from a species of tobacco plant for use in the Asian powerhouse. The major cigarette maker hasn't won over a significant portion of smokers in China, but the country has demonstrated a sizable need for flu vaccines. 

As The Wall Street Journal reported Monday, Philip Morris owns less than a half of 1% of the $160 billion cigarette trade in China, where state-owned tobacco dominates with 97% market share. And the government doesn't want to share its cash cow. Yet there are major medical needs in China, a hotspot for pandemic flu a few years ago and where deaths from smoking-related illnesses, which now total more than 1 million annually, could triple by 2030.

Philip Morris has dabbled in vaccines for years through its investment in the Canadian biotech firm Medicago, which develops seasonal and pandemic flu vaccines grown in wild tobacco plants, which offer an alternative to traditional egg-based production of vaccines. In September, as FierceVaccine reported, Philip Morris expanded the relationship in a deal to gain exclusive rights to Medicago's experimental flu vaccines in the Chinese market, forking over $4.5 million up front in the pact.

Tobacco-based vaccines from Philip Morris and Medicago are probably years away from the market in China, and likely further behind the cigarette maker's hoped-for debut of safer smokes in the country, the WSJ reported. This is if the vaccines pass tests in clinical trials, which make it much more difficult to roll out a new medicine to the market than shipping a new kind of cigarette.  

In the meantime, Medicago, where Philip Morris is a major shareholder, is happy to let a tobacco giant bankroll part of its ambitious plans to advance its vaccines against serious health threats.

- check out the WSJ's article