From waste to value – will forest industry side-streams help us battle viruses and infections?

Global forests are a rich source of antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal bioactive compounds with underutilized commercial opportunities. Many of the potential candidate compounds or groups of compounds have already been identified and studied to some extent on R&D level, but there is still a vast amount of untapped business potential in finding new more potent compounds, and developing new innovations based on already accumulated knowledge.

Currently, these compounds are treated by the pulp and paper industry as waste and are a part of the waste streams. But this is about to change in the future due to a shift towards more circular thinking and transformation from fossils to bio-based. The goal is to improve overall resource efficiency and find even more value-added use for all fractions of the wood.  With vaccinations, it is possible to prevent viral infections, but old vaccines are often specific to certain viral agents and are not effective against newly emerging viruses. In addition, once you are infected with the virus there is a need for treatment, and the treatment is often done with the help of medicinal compounds.

The forest industry can offer solutions by producing antiviral and antimicrobial bioactive compounds that can be used as part of the treatment against the viral infection.

For example, almost 85% of the COVID-19 patients in China have been lately treated with some plant-derived compounds that have been identified to possess antiviral properties. Many of potential compounds can already be found at pulp and paper mills but, as mentioned are currently treated as waste in waste waters or burned to obtain bioenergy.

The opportunity is enormous since it is estimated that nearly 250,000 species of higher plants exist, and people have screened only just over 5% for biological activity. In addition, it has been estimated that each new discovered drug would bring close to $ 100 million for the company and close to $ 500 million to the society. Thus, the value of undiscovered pharmaceuticals can reach as high as trillions of $.

So, what are these compounds? Major groups of the compounds are polyphenols, flavonoids, terpenoids, alkaloids, stilbenes, lectins, lignans, organosulfur compounds, tannins, and bioactive polysaccharides and proteins. Their main antiviral mechanisms include inhibition of either virus entering the cells or inhibition of viral replication inside the cells. These compounds are abundant in global forests and should be viewed as a source for current and future treatment solutions for viruses e.g., coronaviruses, hepatitis C, zika, chikungunya, rotavirus, herpes, parainfluenza and influenza viruses, respiratory syncytial virus, dengue virus, and HIV.

For example, tannins, polyphenols, and stilbenes are found abundantly in the spruce bark. Stilbenes have been found to have antiviral activity on influenza, hepatitis C, HIV, and shown encouraging results towards SARS-CoV-2 lately as well. Tannins have been shown to have capabilities to act against influenza virus A, rotavirus, and HIV. In addition to antiviral compounds, one important example of compound from tree bark against infections is chloroquine, which is a malaria drug extracted from the Peruvian tree bark that is already broadly utilized.

Is there a need to rethink the value the waste streams in your production process? To capture these opportunities within the medical sector more cooperation between the different stakeholders across the industries is needed.

Vision Hunters provides strategic advisory services for the forest industry and energy sectors. We assist leadership teams in making the smartest strategic choices to improve the outcome of their company in the future. We are highly experienced and result oriented and have advised many of the leading companies in our industry.


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