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Defense Ministry denies ‘breakthrough’ on vaccine for COVID-19

Scaling back expectations, government says process will take time; experts estimate full distribution of a vaccine will take roughly a year

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

French lab scientists in hazmat gear inserting liquid in test tube manipulate potentially infected patient samples at Pasteur Institute in Paris, February 6, 2020. (Francois Mori/AP)
Illustrative. French lab scientists in hazmat gear inserting liquid in test tube manipulate potentially infected patient samples at Pasteur Institute in Paris, February 6, 2020. (Francois Mori/AP)

The Defense Ministry on Wednesday night denied reports that the Israel Institute for Biological Research was closing in on developing a vaccine for the coronavirus, saying the process was proceeding on schedule but would still take time.

Earlier on Wednesday, Hebrew media cited unidentified officials as saying that scientists at the Ness Ziona-based institute, which is under the Defense Ministry’s control, were days away from announcing that they created a vaccine for the COVID-19 coronavirus, which has spread rapidly across the globe in recent weeks, developing into a full-scale pandemic, according to the World Health Organization.

In an apparent bid to temper the public’s expectations, the Defense Ministry released a statement in response, saying that this process will take time and that any significant developments would be reported through the proper channels.

“There has been no breakthrough in the efforts of the Institute for Biological Research to find a vaccine for the coronavirus or to develop a testing kit. The institute’s activities are being carried out on an orderly schedule and they will take time,” said the ministry.

“If and when there is something to report, this will be done in an orderly manner,” the ministry said.

Israeli border police wear protective gear and masks at the Ein Yael Checkpoint, near the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, March 11, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Most experts around the world have estimated that the process of developing, approving, manufacturing and distributing a working vaccine for the COVID-19 coronavirus will take roughly a year, if not longer.

On Thursday, the director-general of the Health Ministry, who has led the fight against the spread of the coronavirus, said he believed this one-year estimate to be correct.

“My working assumption is that this cannot happen in the coming year,” Moshe Bar Siman-Tov told Army Radio in an interview.

According to the Defense Ministry, more than 50 “experienced scientists” are taking part in the effort.

“This is a group of world leaders as it related to biological knowledge and research,” it said.

Doctors and scientists around the world have been scrambling to develop a vaccine for the infection, as well as efficient test kits to allow health authorities to more easily and cheaply identify carriers of the virus.

Workers from a Servpro disaster recovery team wearing protective suits and respirators are given supplies before entering the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington, to begin cleaning and disinfecting the facility, March 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The virus is part of a family of viruses that cause respiratory tract infections in humans, which have proven to be extremely difficult to develop vaccines against. This group includes the common cold’s rhinovirus, as well as SARS, MERS and others.

Though a number of research companies in Israel have touted major breakthroughs and successes in developing a vaccine or treatment for the COVID-19 coronavirus — with some claims being repeated by the Science Ministry — Health Ministry officials have been more wary.

Dr. Asher Shalmon, the Health Ministry’s director of international relations, has warned against placing “false hopes” in such purported cures.

On Thursday, the Health Ministry announced that Israel reached at least 100 confirmed cases of COVID-19 coronavirus.

The outbreak of the virus continued to disrupt public life in Israel, with tens of thousands of Israelis being quarantined due to trips abroad and interactions with infected people. A number of schools have also been shuttered due to students and staff contracting the disease. The government on Wednesday evening banned gatherings of more than 100 people, forcing the closure of theaters and concert venues.

Over 125,000 people have contracted the virus around the world, mostly in China, Iran, Italy and South Korea — though Seoul has had marked success in curbing its spread.

Israel’s quarantine measures are among the most dramatic to be introduced by any Western nation in the intensifying battle against the coronavirus. On February 26, Israel became the first country to advise its citizens against all non-essential overseas travel.

Nathan Jeffay contributed to this report.

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