PSL Alliance Member Spearheads Global Community Response to COVID-19

Jake Bernard

May 28, 2020

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Cape Bio Pharms, a spin-off company of the Biopharming Research Unit at the University of Cape Town, has partnered with international biotech companies to address the global accessibility problem for affordable reagents and rapid COVID-19 serology testing. Using plants to produce the antigens and antibodies required for rapid diagnostic test kits, Plants Against Corona initiative, aims to foster a faster, broader and more effective COVID-19 testing response, in South Africa and internationally. This is a key step in curbing pandemics and saving lives.

“We are working towards developing antigens and antibodies for late-stage serology diagnostic tests that detect antibodies in a patient’s blood. This is unlike most diagnostic COVID-19 tests, which look for genetic material to see if someone is currently infectious,” says Cape Bio Pharms co-founder Tamlyn Shaw.

Using a distant cousin of the tobacco plant, the Nicotiana benthamiana, Cape Bio Pharms have produced proprietary plant-based antigens and antibodies against COVID-19. Under the Plants Against Corona partnership, Cape Bio Pharms sourced the gene sequences for SARS-CoV-2, to develop the antigen constructs used to infiltrate the plants, turning them into highly effective bio-reactors. These constructs are being made available to the Plants Against Corona network to speed up and enhance production of SARS-CoV-2 antigens, globally.

A major shortcoming of how the world is testing for COVID-19 is that public health authorities currently have no means to determine whether patients have recovered and are possibly immune. Shaw recommends that serology testing must be done in conjunction with Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) based testing, which detects COVID-19 at the genetic level.

“Once a person is producing antibodies, we know they’ve recovered, but not necessarily developed immunity to the virus. However, serology testing allows for continuous assessment of those who have resumed work and social care duties. The speed and accessibility of these test kits will allow public health authorities to consistently test for SARS-CoV-2 in their communities,” she says.

Global partners in the network include Canadian company Plantform and United Kingdom-based Leaf Expressions, both of whom will assist with scaling up production capacity of the antigens to ensure that the initiative can meet global demand. Academic partners include Plantvax, from the United States and the Department of Applied Genetics and Cell Biology (DAGZ) in the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, into the partnership. They will be using the genetic constructs for their own research and development to further grow the community. Quebec-based vertical farming equipment design company, Inno-3B, aims to assist the Plants Against Corona initiative in rapidly scaling up their plant-growth capacity.

“We have already sent samples of our antigens to local test kit manufacturers who are validating our proteins externally. These proteins have passed our own internal validations and tests and one of the test kit manufacturers has confirmed our protein has been clearly recognised by antibodies against the virus,” says Shaw.

Besides reshaping the COVID-19 testing landscape, the collaboration has a strong research focus. “We want as much Intellectual Property as possible to come into the network, which all partners can use under licence agreements,” Shaw says. “Producing and sharing knowledge and working together on improving existing data boosts capacities and unlocks new opportunities. This is crucial for a quick and broad response to COVID-19, which is impossible to achieve when working in silos.”

The work done now will not just benefit the present, Shaw notes; “Building global networks today helps the world prepare a first line of defence to the next pandemic. Taking history into consideration, we can be sure of one thing – this won’t be the last global disease outbreak.”