CASABLANCA, Chile, Oct 6 (Reuters) – Down a dusty farm track in Chilean wine country, behind a wooden gate wrapped in chains, forestry experts are nursing a plantation of saplings whose bark holds the promise of potent vaccines.
Quillay trees, technically known as Quillaja saponaria, are rare evergreens native to Chile that have long been used by the indigenous Mapuche people to make soap and medicine. In recent years, they have also been used to make a highly successful vaccine against shingles and the world’s first malaria vaccine, as well as foaming agents for products in the food, beverage and mining industries.
Now two saponin molecules, made from the bark of branches pruned from older trees in Chile’s forests, are being used for a COVID-19 vaccine developed by drugmaker Novavax Inc (NVAX.O). The chemicals are used to make adjuvant, a substance that boosts the immune system.
Over the next two years, Maryland-based Novavax (NVAX.O) plans to produce billions of doses of the vaccine, mostly for low- and middle-income countries, which would make it one of the largest COVID-19 vaccine suppliers in the world.
With no reliable data on how many healthy quillay trees are left in Chile, experts and industry officials are divided on how quickly the supply of older trees will be depleted by rising demand. But nearly everyone agrees that industries relying on quillay extracts will at some point need to switch to plantation-grown trees or a lab-grown alternative.
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