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'We have a terrific vaccine,' says institute director

Gantz: Human trials of Israeli-made coronavirus vaccine to begin in mid-October

Shot developed in Defense Ministry’s secretive Institute for Biological Research has already proven effective in animals

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

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, speaks with the director of the Institute of Biological Research, Prof. Shmuel Shapira, at the laboratory in Ness Ziona on August 6, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, speaks with the director of the Institute of Biological Research, Prof. Shmuel Shapira, at the laboratory in Ness Ziona on August 6, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)

An Israeli national laboratory will begin testing its coronavirus vaccine on human subjects in mid-October, Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced Thursday.

Gantz made the remarks following a visit to the Defense Ministry’s secretive Institute for Biological Research in Ness Ziona, where he was informed of recent “advancements in the development of the vaccine and antibodies for the coronavirus,” his office said.

According to the defense minister, initial tests of the vaccine have been promising, allowing for human trials.

“We should begin tests on people after the Tishrei holidays,” Gantz said, referring to the Hebrew month in which the Jewish High Holidays take place, the last of which ends on October 10. “This will be done in coordination with the Health Ministry and according to the protocols needed in terms of medical safety.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, center, speaks with the director of the Institute of Biological Research, Prof. Shmuel Shapira, right, at the laboratory in Ness Ziona on August 6, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

The director of the Institute for Biological Research, Prof. Shmuel Shapira, said he believed that the vaccine would be successful.

“We have a terrific vaccine,” said Shapira holding up a vial. “There are regulatory processes that the vaccine needs to go through in order to meet the timetable you laid out. We are starting after the Tishrei holidays with safety and efficiency tests, but we have the product in our hands,” Shapira said.

Gantz praised the efforts of the institute, which is also — according to foreign reports — involved in developing chemical and biological weapons and antidotes and defenses against them.

“I want to express my thanks, first and foremost, to the Defense Ministry personnel and the personnel from the institute who are doing fantastic work,” he said.

“Just as in the IDF there are elite units that break through and clear the path — you are the reconnaissance unit of the State of Israel in the Defense Ministry in the field of vaccines. I am at your service and I ask that you involve me in any matter that I can help with,” Gantz said.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, speaks with the director of the Institute of Biological Research, Prof. Shmuel Shapira, at the laboratory in Ness Ziona on August 6, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)

Last month, Channel 12 news reported that the institute had made significant progress on the vaccine, achieving nearly 100 percent efficacy in animals.

The vaccine under development is on par in effectiveness with a vaccine being developed by US biotechnology company Moderna, according to the TV report.

In June, Israel signed a deal with Moderna for the potential purchase of its coronavirus vaccine if it proves effective.

Unlike vaccines developed abroad, the domestic vaccine will first be delivered to Israeli citizens, it added. If successful, it was expected to provide protection against the disease with a single dose.

Though it had not started human trials, the institute was preparing to manufacture 10 to 15 million doses, report said.

Clinical Research Nurse Aneta Gupta labels blood samples from volunteer Yash during the Imperial College vaccine trial, at a clinic in London, August 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

In June, the institute announced it had completed successful coronavirus vaccine trials on rodents.

In a paper published on the website of bioRxiv, an online repository for papers that haven’t yet been peer-reviewed, the institute said it hoped to have a finished vaccine in a year, or possibly even earlier.

In the abstract of the paper, the researchers said their vaccine, which they tested on hamsters, “results in rapid and potent induction of neutralizing antibodies against SARS-CoV-2,” the virus that causes COVID-19.

Earlier this month a vaccine adviser to the government cautioned that there was no guarantee that the shots being developed will prove widely effective.

The Health Ministry on Thursday recorded 1,751 new coronavirus cases in 24 hours, and an additional four deaths since the previous evening.  The new fatalities bring the toll since the start of the pandemic to 569. Seventy people have died of the virus since last Thursday.

According to the ministry, 345 people are in serious condition, 100 of whom are on ventilators. Another 145 are in moderate condition, with the rest displaying mild or no symptoms. The ministry said 25,457 tests were conducted on Wednesday, 6.9 percent of which have come back positive.

Israel successfully drove down infection rates to the low dozens after a lockdown in March and April, but the cases again climbed when the economy was reopened in May. Some 78,000 COVID-19 infections have been diagnosed overall, and 53,000 have recovered.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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