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Ex-Mossad chief joins pharma company commercializing Israeli COVID jab

Tamir Pardo signs on as board member of NRx pharmaceuticals, which is completing trials for BriLife vaccine in Georgia, Ukraine

Ricky Ben-David is a senior news editor at The Times of Israel.

Former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo. (Courtesy)
Former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo. (Courtesy)

Former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo has joined NRx Pharmaceuticals, the company completing clinical trials for the Israeli COVID-19 vaccine, as a member of the board of directors, the firm announced this week.

The addition of Pardo, who served as head of the Mossad between 2011 and 2016, is meant to help the company push forward with the commercialization of the jab, it indicated.

NRx, a US clinical-stage pharmaceutical company traded on the Nasdaq, was selected in mid-July by Israel’s Defense Ministry to further manufacture and market BriLife, Israel’s homegrown vaccine developed by the government-run Israel Institute for Biological Research (IIBR). NRx recently began clinical trials in Georgia and has plans to begin testing in Ukraine, according to a Defense Ministry announcement in July.

The IIBR had launched Phase I trials of the vaccine with Israeli volunteers last November and Phase II trials began a month later, just as Israel set off on what was then considered a rapid, successful vaccination campaign with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. A third phase of the trials with BriLife, with up to 30,000 participants, was supposed to begin this past spring.

The local vaccine’s development has lagged significantly behind that of its international competitors. The approval of several international vaccines and Israel’s rapid inoculation campaign beginning last December have raised questions about the need for a domestically produced option that will be ready for distribution long after its competitors.

The Defense Ministry has defended the IIBR project, arguing that it’s necessary to ensure Israel has independent access to inoculations. It has been described by other officials as a backup plan to supplement vaccines purchased from pharmaceutical firms based abroad.

Vials of a potential coronavirus vaccine are seen on an assembly line, in a photograph released by the Israel Institute for Biological Research, on October 25, 2020. (Defense Ministry)

Prof. Shmuel Shapira, the head of the IIBR and the driving force behind the efforts to develop an Israeli COVID-19 vaccine, stepped down in May in a surprise turn of events that cast further doubt on the future of the local inoculation venture. Haaretz reported that same month that IIBR scientists were examining the possibility of forgoing a second dose if patients are given a higher dose in the initial injection, and also relocating trials given Israel’s high vaccination rates.

With the emergence of the highly contagious Delta variant this spring, vaccine makers have been working to examine the effectiveness of their jabs and study dosage as the level of antibodies in those vaccinated have declined in the months after receiving the initial two doses. Israel rapidly rolled out a third dose “booster” campaign in late July, inoculating over 2 million eligible people to date mainly with the Pfizer/BioNTech shot.

BriLife, meanwhile, remains in clinical stages and once those are complete, NRx plans to oversee its commercialization.

According to a Channel 12 report in August, the latest results from the trials indicate the shot may provide longer-term protection than the inoculation developed by Pfizer-BioNTech. Over 200 volunteers who received the highest dosage of the vaccine were notified that they did not need a third dose as their protection remained high, six months after getting a second dose, according to the report, which did not detail how protection was measured, though presumably this was based on antibody counts.

NRx’s plans

NRx is run by chairman and CEO Professor Jonathan Javitt together with Dr. Chaim Hurvitz, a former director of Teva Pharmaceuticals who also chairs CH Health, a Tel Aviv-based private equity group.

Vials of a potential coronavirus vaccine are seen on an assembly line in a photograph released by Israel’s Institute for Biological Research on October 25, 2020. (Defense Ministry)

The pharmaceutical company had indicated that it expects rapid and affordable industrial scaleup and manufacturing for BriLife.

Hurvitz said in a company statement in July that “as the first generation COVID vaccines are increasingly challenged by rapid mutation of the coronavirus, we aim to develop a vaccine that can rapidly scale at low cost to serve the needs of both the developed and the developing world.”

In a statement this week, Javitt welcomed Pardo as a member of the board whose “knowledge and experience in the international field will constitute a significant breakthrough in the distribution of the vaccine worldwide.”

Pardo said in the announcement that he was “happy to continue serving the State of Israel,” adding that the “success of blue-and-white [Israeli] developments, especially in the fight against the coronavirus, would be a success for everyone.”

Together with NRx, Pardo said he will do everything he can “to ensure the success of the vaccine, as well as additional developments by the company.”

Pardo is also the co-founder of XM Cyber, a cybersecurity company established in 2018 that simulates real hacking attacks to protect networks. Globes reported this week that XM Cyber is expected to bid to protect infrastructure industries in the UAE and Bahrain, as part of a consortium led by Rafael.

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