Israeli-made oral vaccine for coronavirus on track, but testing will take months

State-funded Migal Galilee institute has been working for 4 years on a vaccine that could be customized for various viruses, so it had a head start when COVID-19 emerged

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

A lab worker at Migal in an undated photo released by the research institute. (Courtesy: Lior Journo)
A lab worker at Migal in an undated photo released by the research institute. (Courtesy: Lior Journo)

An effective Israeli-developed vaccine for coronavirus is on track to be ready for testing within “a few weeks,” though it won’t be available for months because of the lengthy and sometimes bureaucratic testing and approval process, a member of the development team said Tuesday.

Chen Katz told The Times of Israel that the new oral vaccine for adults and children could “turn this disease into a very mild cold.” He said that for many people who are inoculated and then infected by COVID-19, “potentially it will not affect them at all.”

The rapid potential progress by the state-funded Migal Galilee Research Institute stems from the fact that the institute has been working for four years toward a vaccine that could be customized for various viruses, and has now adapted that work to focus on the coronavirus, he said.

Nonetheless, while Israel’s science ministry made headlines last week by touting the institute’s work and saying that its vaccine could be three months away, Dr. Asher Shalmon, the Health Ministry’s director of international relations, has warned against placing “false hopes” in it.

Dr. Chen Katz (Courtesy)

The vaccine will consist of a specially produced protein, and Katz said he expects to be clutching a bottle of it within “a few weeks.” But then comes clinical testing, which will take place in conjunction with a partner, and the paperwork, both of which will take time.

Katz, Biotechnology Group Leader at the institute, said: “By the time the protein is ready, we hope to have found the right partner who can take us through the clinical stage. The clinical testing experiments themselves are not so long, and we can complete them in 30 days, plus another 30 days for human trials. Most of the time is bureaucracy — regulation and paperwork.”

Time could also be lost because of “waiting points” between the different stages of the process, until regulators give the nod for things to move forward.

Dr. Asher Shalmon (Courtesy)

He spoke of the excitement that his team felt when it realized that the research it had been engaged in for four years could be tweaked to combat coronavirus. “The opportunity is amazing here,” he said. “Everyone wants to know we can contribute something to humanity and when we found we had the right tools to do it this became is very exciting.”

Katz’s group at Israel’s state-funded Migal Institute has become a source of hope to many around the world since it revealed on February 27 that it is working on the vaccine, and said it hoped to achieve “safety approval” in 90 days.

For four years, the research of Katz’s team had been focused on developing a vaccine that could be customized to various viruses. It was piloting it with Infectious Bronchitis Virus, but as as coronavirus swept China, started adapting the vaccine for COVID-19.

Its February 27 announcement prompted a widespread expectation among the public that people would soon be protected against coronavirus, which prompted Shalmon’s warning against “false hopes.”

Katz clarified that the 90-day time frame in the February 27 statement was until the product is ready for human testing, and said he still believes this is realistic. He said that skeptics should understand that his team is not working on new research, but rather customizing an existing innovation, meaning that a fast turnaround is realistic. He stated: “The important thing is that we were working on a vaccine, unrelated to this outbreak, and this is a great advantage.”

Katz revealed that the development process is sufficiently advanced that his ten-person team doesn’t need the virus. Instead, it went on the internet soon after the outbreak began, found the sequence of the virus which had been published, and got to work.

He said that the vaccine will be double-barreled, deploying two means to defend people against coronavirus.

The first protection triggers a response in the mouth to stop COVID-19 entering the body. Katz explained: “We are developing the proteins that are needed for our technology of the oral vaccination. They are special proteins which, when sprayed in to the mouth, penetrate the epithelial cells inside the mouth and activate a mucosal immune response, which is the part of the immune response in our body that protects the entry point of the virus.”

The second level of protection kicks in if COVID-19 enters the body. It will bolster the immune system in such a way “that when viral particles penetrate, there will be an immune protection, of antibodies and the right white blood cells.”

He said it will be administered by an oral spray, and will protect people who encounter COVID-19 two weeks after being administered. He stressed: “This is not a drug, not for treatment, only for prevention.”

When The Times of Israel talked to him on Tuesday, Katz’s team, like many in Israel, was also celebrating the Purim festival with fancy dress — in Katz’s case a wig — and hamantaschen. Katz explained that there isn’t much that the team can do to further speed its work along, as it is waiting for scientific processes to chug through in their own time. “This is biology, so it takes its time,” he said.

Much of the work is done by bacteria, he stated, explaining a central part of the process, saying: “We take part of the virus DNA and introduce it to bacteria and make the bacteria produce the viral proteins.”

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