Israeli oral COVID vaccine works as booster, animal trial finds

Given as drops on the tongue, Galilee-made MigVax could help address complex challenges of getting boosters to millions around the world over coming months, inventors say

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

Illustrative image: an oral vaccine in a pipette. (zsv3207 via iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative image: an oral vaccine in a pipette. (zsv3207 via iStock by Getty Images)

An Israeli-made oral COVID vaccine has performed well on rats, and its inventors hope to have it ready as a booster dose for humans within nine months.

“Everyone talks about us needing boosters for vaccines, and after a successful preclinical trial we hope to be providing many of them with our oral booster,” David Zigdon, CEO of MigVax, told The Times of Israel.

More than 70 rats were inoculated with conventional COVID-19 vaccines and then given the oral MigVax booster, and all of their immune systems responded as hoped, said Zigdon. “Their antibody levels increased significantly, and there were no side effects,” he reported.

Scientists took blood from some rats and infected it with SARS‑CoV‑2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in a lab. “The virus was neutralized in vitro,” stated Zigdon.

After this success, human trials are now planned, which could result in doses ready for human use by early 2022, by which time demand for boosters is expected to be high.

Zigdon added that the specific technology used by his booster allows easy adaptation to cover new variants of the coronavirus, meaning that if one emerges that breaks through existing vaccines, it could be given to extend protection.

The research team working on the MigVax vaccine, including CEO David Zigdon in the blue shirt (courtesy of the Migal Galilee Research Institute)

The immune reactions among the rats that received the oral vaccine were stronger than in a control group of rats.

Since the pandemic started, scientists in northern Israel have been working frantically to adapt a vaccine against a virus strain that causes bronchial disease affecting poultry, so that it could be repurposed to fight SARS‑CoV‑2. Work started at the state-funded Migal Galilee Research Institute, and is now concentrated in the affiliated company MigVax.

Unlike the Pfizer vaccine, the product does not use messenger RNA but rather subunit technology, which contains purified pieces of the virus, selected for their ability to stimulate immune cells.

As it became clear that other injected vaccines were moving more quickly, the MigVax team refocused on producing it as a booster dose rather than initial inoculation, and Zigdon said it will now prove central to maintaining immunity months after inertial vaccination.

“Oral boosters are much easier to administer than third injections, especially in poor countries or places where there is a lack of medical staff,” he said.

The oral vaccine needs refrigeration, but does not require “deep freeze” conditions, making logistics easier, he added.

Prof. Itamar Shalit, MigVax’s lead infectious disease expert, commented: “Fifteen months into the pandemic, we now see that the struggle to keep COVID under control is nearly as challenging as getting it under control to begin with.

“Oral boosters such as our MigVax-101 will be key enablers that will help health organizations the world over transition from ‘panic mode’ to routine, due to their ability to reduce the cost and expand the reach of ongoing vaccination programs.”

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