This Monday, the world woke up with the news of a vaccine against covid “90% effective“, from the Pfizer company. But there are more vaccines in development. And one of them will owe its effectiveness to a Mapuche tree.
In the gray, dark, cracked bark of A beautiful ancient tree endemic to Chile hides the fundamental ingredient for the covid vaccine that the Swedish-American pharmaceutical company Novavax has already begun to test in humans.
It is a vaccine that has just gotten fast track approval and is in its final phase of clinical trial in the UK. This month it will begin its last tests in the US, Mexico and Puerto Rico.
The key element for this vaccine is in a tree that the indigenous Mapuche have used since ancient times as medicinal plant to cure all kinds of ills, from stomach and respiratory diseases to skin problems and rheumatism, and whose healing properties have been known (and used) by the cosmetic, food and pharmaceutical industry for decades.
The quillai –quilleja saponaria if you ask a scientist, Küllay for a Mapuche- it is known as the “soap bark tree” for their vegetable saponins, molecules that foam when in contact with water and that have become a coveted enhancer of the immune response of several vaccines.
One of them is Novavax, which received the largest funding from the Donald Trump government to develop the covid-19 vaccine.
But what is special about the quillay bark for the development of this vaccine?
The key is that the saponins of quillay can be transformed in adjuvants, substances that amplify the effect of the vaccine. But the process is complex.
“Adjuvants have been in development for many years and support the immune response of the vaccine, making it higher and of better quality,” Dr. Gregory Glenn, Novavax’s head of research and development, tells BBC Mundo.
Glenn says these compounds “provide our immune system an important red flag for him to react to the vaccine ”. In the case of the new coronavirus, that would be vital.
“The immune system’s response to viral respiratory infections, such as flu or covid, It has to be very tall and robust because, despite having antibodies, we get sick. This happens because our immunity is very low – or mostly null, in the case of covid – to be able to block the infection, ”explains Glenn.
“It is important to add an adjuvant to the covid vaccine to obtain a higher response that protects us better ”, sums up the scientist.
“What we do is make a specific protein from the virus genome and we introduce it into a particle. We also make the adjuvant (from the quillay saponins), which we introduce into another particle. These adjuvants are key for our body to recognize the protein and thus generate a powerful response ”.
Saponins are found in many plants, but so far only those of quillay have proved effective for the pharmaceutical industry, which after years of research found a formula to transform them into non-toxic adjuvants for humans.
The quillay concentrates the saponins in its bark and these are usually extracted from the trunk.
The company that supplies the saponins to Novavax, the biotech Desert King, developed a procedure to extract the active agents from the bark and from quillay wood which, transformed into powder, sells to Novavax so that it can manufacture its vaccines.
“They are removed as 30 or 50 kilos (of saponins) from a large tree. The cork is cleaned, the upper part of the bark, they take it out with knives, and the rest is thrown away. It is very little amount that can be extracted. I suggested extracting them from the wood so as not to kill the tree, and that’s how our company was born ”, Chilean researcher Ricardo San Martín tells BBC Mundo, who heads the Desert King International Innovation Department from San Diego, California.
A frantic search
San Martín has spent his entire life studying quillay saponins and their application in vaccines.
“When new diseases appeared in the 1990s, it was found that the old adjuvants were not working well. The body did not remember what had happened and the immune response was poor. There began a frantic search for new adjuvants “, says the researcher.
“By the 50s it had already been discovered that certain quillay compounds play the role of adjuvant. Later, a Danish researcher with whom I worked, Kristian Dalsgaard, observed that when injected into animals it produced a lot of irritation and purified it. That’s when I began to investigate these compounds, in 1995, ”he tells BBC Mundo San Martín, who was working at the Universidad Católica de Chile at the time.
“Soon after, in the United States they discovered that a part of this compound could be used in human vaccines. Thus was born QS21, the scientific name of the quillay purified saponin adjuvant“.
“About 10 years ago the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) obtained approval for use in human vaccines. The herpes zoster and malaria, for example, use these compounds. “
Novavax uses a slightly different formula that allows you not to have to extract the pure compound. “That makes it easier for them to get more of this adjuvant,” says San Martín.
He has high hopes for the Novavax vaccine, for whose manufacture quillay, he assures, is “key”; “Without it there would be no vaccine.”
Other vaccines what they do not have adjuvant are made from ribonucleic acid (RNA or RNA), like the covid vaccine that is developing the British laboratory AstraZeneca. But they require refrigeration, which can be a problem for their global distribution, says San Martín.
There are up to five different types of adjuvants that can be used in human vaccines. QS21 (and its derivatives) is considered a “modern” adjuvant.
“There are many adjuvants. The reason we like what we make from quillay is because it is very effectiveGlenn says. “That makes us optimistic towards our covid vaccine“.
Jaime Pérez Martín, from the Spanish Vaccination Association (AEV) believes that the fact that the Novavax vaccine has an adjuvant is positive, especially since it is a pandemic time, “since it has the advantage that the production (of the adjuvant ) can accumulate, facilitating the manufacture of many more vaccines ”.
“The adjuvant of the Novavax vaccine is very recent and belongs to the family of new adjuvants that have had great power in the reaction of the immune system,” adds the doctor.
“Traditional adjuvants were based mostly on aluminum, but modern adjuvants have made the immune response even in very old people it is tremendously high, which is very important ”.
Race against time
Novavax expects to start phase 3 in the United States in November. “If we establish evidence that the vaccine is working in the UK, it would be a big step forward. So far it is going very well. We will see the results of the clinical trial early in the first quarter of 2021, ”says Glenn.
Meanwhile, the suppliers of the valuable saponins are in a race against time.
“For a first phase of vaccines – to be able to satisfy the first demand – I estimate that 5,000 to 7,000 trees“, Says San Martín.
“The problem is that the saponins from the bark are needed for the vaccine, which are more concentrated. The current solution is to remove them from the bark of old trees, but there are not so many ”.
“There are two possible options: either the compounds are synthesized – there are already people working on that, but it takes time – or younger bushes are used, in which we are already seeing a good amount of compounds,” explains the scientist.
“It is a race against time. In the first years, Novavax will have the supply from Chile, I have no doubt, but you have to start thinking about other options. It is necessary to have alternative supplies and select those trees or shrubs with a high amount of saponins ”.
“Once you clone them, you can replicate them and plant them in fairly small patches, agriculturally speaking. That’s what I’m working on now. “
San Martín says his company is already experimenting with planting them in California, where they seem to grow well.
“Use and abuse”
However, not everyone welcomes the interest – and procedures – of pharmaceutical companies in quillay.
Mapuche leader Minerva Tegualda Castañeda Meliñán believes that “they have not respected intellectual property of wisdom medicinel mapuche“And opposes the” use and abuse of the ancestral medicinal knowledge of the Mapuche people. “
“Pharmaceutical companies have patented and exploited our medicinal herbs and our ancestral knowledge,” he tells BBC Mundo in a telephone conversation.
The quillay, Tegualda says, “is used by the Mapuches for its medicinal properties since ancient times, both domestically -to wash hair or make soaps- and medicinally, by machis (shamans) and lawentuchefes (healers) ”.
“I think there has been a very large violation by pharmaceutical companies and some scientists when using our knowledge without due protection.”
“We Mapuches have certain protocols towards nature,” adds Tegualda. “Before using medicinal plants we ask permission from the land. In the same way, the quillay is a sacred tree and not only is there disrespect, but there is a profit from the laboratories“.
“I am not opposed to a vaccine with the active principles of quillay, because it is a greater good and the coronavirus affects us all, but there must be certain protocols regarding the intellectual property of Mapuche medicine that pharmaceutical companies have not complied with”, says the leader.
San Martín believes that the Mapuche “never used quillay for immunology reasons” and defends that pharmaceutical companies take advantage of its uses, a dynamic that does not seem to be expiring anytime soon.
“What is certain is that the demand for quillay will not decrease, whether for the covid vaccine or for others.”
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.