Israel expected to receive Moderna’s COVID vaccine by mid-2021

Israeli chief medical officer of US biotech firm confirms timeline; separately, hopes raised Israeli-produced shot could be ready in 6 months

A nurse gives a volunteer an injection as part of a study of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the US National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., in Binghamton, New York, July 27, 2020. (Hans Pennink/AP)
A nurse gives a volunteer an injection as part of a study of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the US National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., in Binghamton, New York, July 27, 2020. (Hans Pennink/AP)

The Israeli chief medical officer of US biotech firm Moderna predicted the Jewish state would receive its COVID-19 vaccine before June 2021.

“We don’t yet have a precise timetable. It will be in the first half of 2021. But when exactly, in which months, we can’t yet [say],” Dr. Tal Zacks told the Ynet news site on Thursday, adding that he “can’t promise” the shots would be distributed in Israel in January or February.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in June that Israel signed a deal with Moderna for a future coronavirus vaccine, without specifying the number of doses that would be supplied or the financial details of the agreement. Israel is also working on its own vaccine, with an expert claiming Thursday it could be available in the next six months, possibly beating out the US version.

Moderna Inc. previously announced the earliest it could seek authorization of its own vaccine from US regulators would be November 25. Both Moderna and US-based Pfizer have been running large-scale phase 3 clinical trials since July and have already begun producing doses, aiming for tens of millions potentially available by the end of the year.

Moderna’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tal Zaks (Courtesy)

Both are “mRNA vaccines,” an experimental new platform that has never before been fully approved. They both inject people with the genetic material necessary to grow the “spike protein” of SARS-CoV-2 inside their own cells, thus eliciting an immune response the body will remember when it encounters the real virus.

This effectively turns a person’s own body into a vaccine factory, avoiding the costly and difficult processes that more traditional vaccine production requires.

But while the approach may have helped put Pfizer and Moderna in pole position in the vaccine race, a major drawback is they require deep-freezers for storage, which could limit distribution.

Experts warn that even when vaccines are approved, it will take many months until they are widely available. And unlike vaccines against other diseases such as measles, experts believe COVID-19 vaccines, when they come, will fall far short of 100 percent effectiveness.

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 October 19, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)

Earlier this week, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Israel’s Institute for Biological Research will begin testing a coronavirus vaccine on humans at the end of the month.

Dr. Amos Panet, a member of the advisory board on vaccines for the Institute, on Thursday told Ynet that the Israeli vaccine is at a “very advanced” stage.

“The clinical trials will take some time, but together with the Health Ministry and in cooperation with the hospitals, I estimate that it will progress quickly,” he said.

“I am very optimistic and hope that in the next six months we’ll see a ‘blue and white’ vaccine,” Panet added, referring to a domestically produced version by invoking the colors of Israel’s flag.

A lab technician processes blood samples for COVID-19 vaccines research, Miami, Florida, September 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Taimy Alvarez)

He said the Israeli vaccine, unlike Moderna’s, is based on tried-and-true vaccine models, including for Ebola. The Israeli version, which is not an mRNA shot, also does not have the potential drawbacks associated with the US firm’s version, noted Panet.

“If I had to bet my chips on some sort of vaccine, I would put it on the Institute for Biological Research and not Moderna’s,” Panet said.

Netanyahu in June, announcing the Moderna deal, also pinned his hope on an Israeli vaccine.

“The State of Israel has signed an agreement with Moderna that will allow us to purchase vaccines. The company is making progress in development and claims that they can achieve it by the middle of next year. We hope that they will succeed but we have no guarantee. However, we are interested in receiving these vaccines quickly if and when they will be developed. This puts us in a very good position globally.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu taking a 15-minute coronavirus test, October 6, 2020. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

“Of course, we will continue with our efforts here in the State of Israel, at the Israel Institute for Biological Research, and we hope that results will be achieved there as well,” added Netanyahu.

An Israeli expert has also suggested that Israelis could get both shots, even as he warned there was no guarantee the bid would effectively wipe out the virus.

“One scenario is we will get the Moderna vaccine and then get the Biological Institute vaccine,” Cyrille Cohen, a member of a Health Ministry advisory committee that deals with coronavirus vaccines, told The Times of Israel in July, noting that there are precedents for giving two vaccines for the same disease, such as polio.

The World Health Organization has identified 42 “candidate vaccines” at the stage of clinical trials, up from 11 in mid-June. Ten of them are at the most advanced “phase 3” stage, in which a vaccine’s effectiveness is tested on a large scale, generally tens of thousands of people across several continents.

Moderna, a US-German collaboration between BioNTech and Pfizer, several state-run Chinese labs, and a European project led by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca are thought to be among the more promising vaccine producers. Russia has already registered two COVID-19 vaccines, even before clinical trials were completed.

Israeli health officials have said they’re studying the Russian vaccine and Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin have reportedly okayed cooperation on the matter.

Trials of two candidate vaccines — made by Johnson & Johnson and Eli Lilly — were “paused” recently over safety concerns.

Earlier this month, the US Food and Drug Administration said it would need to see two months of follow-up data after vaccination before giving emergency authorization for use.

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