Aims to file a patent in next few days

Israeli lab confirms breakthrough with virus antibody, but says months till cure

State-run facility says it is ‘first in world’ to reach 3 major milestones in COVID-19 fight; antibody could yield a treatment but has yet to be tested on animals, let alone humans

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

Volunteer scientists process samples taken from people tested for the novel coronavirus, at a laboratory recently dedicated for the processing of COVID-19 samples by Medicines Discovery Catapult, at The Lighthouse Lab at Alderley Park in Cheshire, northern England, on April 22, 2020. (Paul Ellis/AFP)
Illustrative. Volunteer scientists process samples taken from people tested for the novel coronavirus, at a laboratory recently dedicated for the processing of COVID-19 samples by Medicines Discovery Catapult, at The Lighthouse Lab at Alderley Park in Cheshire, northern England, on April 22, 2020. (Paul ELLIS / AFP)

Israel’s shadowy Biological Research Institute confirmed Tuesday that it has isolated an antibody it believes could be used to develop treatments against the COVID-19 virus, and said it was ahead of the world in its efforts, though it also warned that medication was still at least several months away.

This development would not be useful in the creation of a vaccine, but would rather be a move toward a drug treatment for those who have already contracted the disease. The antibody has also not yet been tested outside of a Petri dish.

While a number of scientific institutions around the world have discovered antibodies capable of destroying the COVID-19 virus, the Defense Ministry-run laboratory said it was the first in the world to reach three major milestones: finding an antibody that destroys the virus; that targets this coronavirus specifically; and that is monoclonal, lacking additional proteins that can cause complications for patients.

“As far as we known, according to comprehensive scientific publication from around the world, the Biological Research Institute is the first in the world to achieve this breakthrough in these three parameters at the same time,” the institute said in a statement.

Prof Shuki Shemer, the head of Israel’s Assuta Medical Center and a former director general of the Health Ministry, noted the significance of the development.

“This is a real breakthrough” involving “scientific and technological capabilities of the first order,” Shemer told Channel 13 on Tuesday evening.

“They’ve produced an antibody that neutralizes the virus,” he said, though “there’s still a long way to go” in terms of testing and approval.

“No other country has done this,” Shemer added.

The Biological Research Institute, which is based in Ness Ziona, said it was working to file a patent for this antibody in the coming days.

“This is an important milestone, but afterwards comes complicated tests and a process of getting regulatory approval. Per an assessment by the institute’s scientists, this technological breakthrough is poised to shorten the process, which will go on for several months,” the institute said in a statement.

On Monday, a Dutch institute also reported that it had isolated a monoclonal antibody capable of neutralizing the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a Petri dish.

Israel’s Defense Minister Naftali Bennett had announced the isolation of the antibody late Monday night.

“In the next stage, researchers will approach international companies to produce the antibody on a commercial scale,” Bennett’s office said in a statement.

The Israel Institute for Biological Research, is seen in this file photo, hidden behind shrubs and barbed-wire in the Israeli town of Ness Tziona, south of Tel Aviv, Oct. 14,1998. (AP Photo/Mark Levie)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier on Monday pledged $60 million (about NIS 210 million) at an international donors conference raising funds for the joint fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

“Like all countries, Israel is now trying to find the right balance between protecting the health of our citizens by preventing another spike in infections, and enabling the reopening of our economy, but, ultimately, to ensure both the public health and national prosperity, we must all work together on improving diagnostics, accelerating therapies and ultimately developing a vaccine,” he said in a prerecorded message to the virtual pledging event.

“I am confident that Israel’s leading research institutions, its world-renowned scientists and our unique culture of innovation can enable us to play an important role in advancing solutions on all three fronts,” he went on. “We hope to work with other countries to leverage our unique capabilities to find solutions for the benefit of all.”

About 100 research groups around the world are pursuing vaccines for the coronavirus, with nearly a dozen in early stages of human trials or poised to start. But so far there’s no way to predict which — if any — vaccine will work safely, or even to name a front-runner.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US government’s top expert, has cautioned that even if everything goes perfectly, developing a vaccine in 12 to 18 months would set a record for speed.

Even if a first useful vaccine is identified, there won’t be enough for everyone initially. A growing number of vaccine makers say they’re already starting to brew tons of doses — wasting millions of dollars if they bet on the wrong candidate but shaving a few months off mass vaccinations if their choice pans out.

In early February, before the virus reached Israel, Netanyahu instructed the Biological Research Institute and the Health Ministry to work to create a vaccine against the virus and to establish a vaccine factory.

“It is possible that even on this issue, if we work fast enough, with an appropriate budget and the talented people that we have, that Israel will be ahead of the world,” he said at the time.

According to foreign media reports, the Israel Institute for Biological Research is involved in developing chemical and biological weapons and antidotes and defenses against them.

In March, a report in the Haaretz daily claiming IIBR had made a breakthrough was denied.

“There has been no breakthrough in the efforts of the biological institute to find a vaccine for the coronavirus or to develop testing kits. The institute’s work is conducted according to an orderly work plan and it will take time. If and when there will be something to report, it will be done in an orderly fashion,” the Defense Ministry told Haaretz in response to the report of a breakthrough.

“The biological institute is a world-renowned research and development agency, which relies on experienced researchers and scientists with great knowledge and quality infrastructures. There are now more than 50 experienced scientists working at the institute on researching and developing a medical remedy for the virus.”

Several private Israeli companies are also working on treatments and potential vaccines for coronavirus.

Times of Israel staff and Agencies contributed to this report.

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