Israeli-made oral COVID vaccine found to generate antibodies in pigs

Jerusalem-based scientist expects approval for humans within 6 months, says advance could simplify vaccination drives and even allow home vaccination using pills sent by mail

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative image: Pills. Israel's Oramed Pharmaceuticals and India-based Premas Biotech are working on a vaccine pill to inoculate against COVID-19 (schlosann via iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative image: Pills. Israel's Oramed Pharmaceuticals and India-based Premas Biotech are working on a vaccine pill to inoculate against COVID-19 (schlosann via iStock by Getty Images)

An Israeli company has produced an oral COVID vaccine, and found that pigs produce the desired antibodies after taking it.

Oramed Pharmaceuticals says that the innovation could revolutionize coronavirus inoculation, saving lives by speeding up the process. If people can swallow the planned vaccine pill at home instead of visiting a clinic, vaccine drives can be sped up significantly, said the company’s chief scientific officer, Dr. Miriam Kidron.

Oramed has created a single-dose oral version of a prospective vaccine made by India-based Premas Biotech, and Kidron said she is “very excited” that it may be able to “help end the pandemic.” She hopes to start Phase I trials soon, and said the vaccine could pass regulation and be ready for use within six months — long before most doctors expect global vaccination.

Kidron’s team administered the liquid from inside the new pill to pigs near the central city of Rehovot. The animals responded by producing antibodies in the quantities expected post-inoculation: immunoglobulin G (IgG), the most common antibody in blood and bodily fluids that protects against viral infections, and immunoglobulin A (IgA), which defends the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts against infection.

Illustrative: Antibodies attacking a SARS-CoV-2 virus (Dr_Microbe;iStock by Getty Images)

Kidron told The Times of Israel on Thursday from her Jerusalem office: “This oral vaccine could would allow us to vaccinate much quicker and much more easily. Just imagine that you don’t need to go to a clinic. The pill could even arrive in your mailbox, and you could take it in your own home.”

Oramed Pharmaceuticals chief scientific officer Miriam Kidron (courtesy of Oramed)

Kidron said that as well as taking the pressure off clinics, her oral vaccine, which can be stored at room temperature, could eliminate the logistical challenges posed by several of the existing vaccines — including the Pfizer shots used in Israel — which require storage at very cold temperatures.

In some parts of the world, fear of needles is a major hurdle to vaccination campaigns, and one African country has already made contact expressing interest in vaccine pills for this reason, Kidron said.

Her son Nadav Kidron, the company’s CEO, noted that doctors expect people to top up COVID-19 vaccines, and said the pill vaccine could prove to be a game-changer.

“While ease of administration is critical today to accelerate inoculation rates, an oral vaccine could become even more valuable in the likely case that a COVID-19 vaccine may be required annually or biannually like the standard flu shot,” her said.

Insulin pills produced by Oramed (courtesy of Oramed Pharmaceuticals)

Oramed is using an “oral protein delivery platform” that it developed for its oral insulin candidate, which is in final stage tests and could soon become the first product of its kind in the world.

Kidron developed the technology behind the vaccine’s oral dosing mechanism at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, and has been exploring various uses for it for the last few years in Oramed. The Nobel laureate and Israel Prize-winning biochemist Avram Hershko is one of her company’s scientific advisers.

The oral vaccine is a modification of Premas’ protein-based VLP (virus-like particle) vaccine, originally designed as an injected shot, and still awaiting approval. The Premas shot creates triple protection against the SARS CoV-2 virus spike, membrane, and envelope targets.

Oramed and Premas hope to bring the product to market together branded as Oravax, and have formed a new company, Oravax Medical, in order to do so. Dr. Prabuddha Kundu, managing director of Premas, called the project “an excellent example of a true collaboration which can rapidly advance into late-stage clinical trials.”

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