British American Tobacco, the maker of brands including Lucky Strike, Dunhill, Rothmans and Benson & Hedges, says it has made a “significant breakthrough” in the race to find a vaccine for the coronavirus using tobacco plants.

The company said Wednesday that its U.S. biotech subsidiary, Kentucky BioProcessing (KBP), has moved to pre-clinical testing and that it will work on the vaccine on a not-for-profit basis. British American Tobacco (BAT) said that its potential vaccine is currently being tested on animals, and it is "exploring partnerships with government agencies" to bring the vaccine to clinical studies.

“If testing goes well, BAT is hopeful that, with the right partners and support from government agencies, between 1m and 3m doses of the vaccine could be manufactured per week, beginning in June,” the company said.

Tobacco firms are currently barred from doing deals with governments under World Health Organisation rules, but BAT said it planned to contact the WHO. The company also said it had approached the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and UK's Department of Health and Social Care to “offer our support and access to our research with the aim of trying to expedite the development of a vaccine for Covid -19."

Tobacco plants being cultivated for vaccine development at British American Tobacco's KBP facilities. BAT press release

“Tobacco plants offer the potential for faster and safer vaccine development compared with conventional methods,” the company said.

Dr David O’Reilly, the director of scientific research at BAT, said: “Vaccine development is challenging and complex work but we believe we have made a significant breakthrough with our tobacco plant technology platform, and we stand ready to work with governments and all stakeholders to help win the war against Covid-19.

“KBP has been exploring alternative uses of the tobacco plant for some time. One such alternative use is the development of plant-based vaccines.”

In 2014, the tobacco firm bought KBP, which has previously worked on a treatment that was tested with some success on Ebola patients in the United States. BAT said its work was “potentially safer [than conventional vaccine technology], given that tobacco plants cannot host pathogens which cause human disease."