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Tobacco giants are getting into the coronavirus vaccine race

May 21, 2020, 2:30 PM UTC

British American Tobacco (BAT), the company that manufactures global cigarette brands such as Lucky Strike, Pall Mall, Newport, and Camel cigarettes, among others, made a curious announcement last week: Its biotech subsidiary Kentucky BioProcessing is potentially advancing a coronavirus vaccine candidate into human clinical trials.

BAT says that it’s using tobacco plants in the manufacturing process of its experimental COVID-19 vaccine, but that doesn’t mean cigarettes or nicotine products will help prevent coronavirus infection. In fact, it is the exact opposite.

The company believes that using tobacco plants during the creation of the vaccine can speed up vaccine production, lowering development time from months to about six weeks. The company’s goal, should it get regulatory go-ahead, is to eventually produce anywhere from 1 million to 3 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine per week using this process. Philip Morris International is also exploring the use of tobacco plants for a potential vaccine.

On the flip side, there is an increasing body of evidence that smoking raises the amount of an enzyme called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) present in human lungs—which is a problem since the novel coronavirus binds to ACE2. This is one possible factor fueling the gender disparities we’ve seen in cases of COVID-19, with men—who are more likely to be smokers—being hit harder than women.

There are also downstream effects of smoking that can raise the risks of coronavirus infection or lead to more severe COVID-19 cases. Smoking is linked to hypertension and heart disease, which are both serious risk factors for contracting the pathogen.

While there’s still much to be learned about how tobacco plants can impact vaccine production, the evidence is clear that consuming tobacco won’t inoculate anyone from the coronavirus.

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—What France’s “patient zero” doctor wants you to know about COVID-19
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—Photo essay: What life looks like in Europe as the continent starts to reopen
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—PODCAST: How Marc Benioff is helping out during the coronavirus pandemic
—WATCH: Fortune’s top 10 heroes of the coronavirus pandemic

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