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Israeli plan for COVID vaccine tablet gets $4.3m from Bill Gates-backed fund

MigVax aiming at ultra-convenient variant-proof oral immunization, based on format it has already made into drops and tested on rats

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

The team developing the MigVax vaccine in the Galilee (courtesy of MigVax)
The team developing the MigVax vaccine in the Galilee (courtesy of MigVax)

A COVID-fighting coalition heavily funded by Bill Gates has awarded $4.3 million for development of an Israeli variant-proof vaccine in tablet form.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a founder of the Oslo-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and last October committed $20 million to it.

CEPI now has a $200 million program to advance vaccine development, and has just announced its first funding awards. MigVax, a poultry vaccine that is being adapted for humans in the Galilee, is one of the two recipients.

“We were selected as one of just two projects and this is extremely exciting, and a big boost to our hopes of offering a tablet that is a COVID-19 vaccine,” David Zigdon, CEO of MigVax, told The Times of Israel.

He added that the $4.3 million grant from CEPI is likely to be just the start of its investment. “This is the initial funding, but when we reach the relevant milestones it is likely it will give more support, through to the phase of clinical trials,” he said.

MigVax is aiming not only to produce a tablet vaccine, but also to make it particularly sturdy against new variants as well as adaptable to future viruses. It expects to achieve these aims using its subunit vaccine, which contains purified pieces of the virus that were selected for their ability to stimulate immune cells.

A child is given a coronavirus test in Jerusalem on September 9, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Since the pandemic started, scientists in the Galilee have been working frantically to take a pre-existing vaccine against a virus that causes bronchial disease affecting poultry and adapt it for use against the coronavirus. Work started at the state-funded Migal Galilee Research Institute, and is now concentrated in the affiliated company MigVax.

In June MigVax announced that it had formulated the vaccine into drops, and successfully tested them on rats. The drops are ready to start clinical trials.

Illustrative image of a nurse holding a pill (iStock by Getty Images)

Drops require less health infrastructure than injections, but tablets hold even bigger advantages, being easier to transport, distribute and administer, said Zigdon.

“A lot of people say we already have vaccines, so why do we need oral vaccines? But every advance with oral vaccines makes it easier to get vaccines to where they are needed most,” he said.

They will prove key to keeping vaccines up-to-date with boosters, he predicted.

“We are gratified that CEPI shares our conviction that a subunit oral vaccine tablet could help the world return to a ‘new normal’ in the ‘day-after-the-pandemic’ reality,” Zigdon said. “In fact, twenty months into the COVID crisis, it is clearer than ever that the struggle to keep the disease under control will be nearly as challenging as getting it under control to begin with.

“We will take full advantage of this grant to bring it to market faster and explore the potential use of our vaccine platform against other coronaviruses.”

Hospital team members wearing safety gear as they work in the Coronavirus ward of Ziv Medical Center in the northern Israeli city of Tzfat on February 04, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

CEPI’s other grantee is the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization, which is developing a vaccine:

“CEPI’s partnerships with MigVax Ltd and the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization are kicking off our ambitious programme to develop variant-proof COVID-19 vaccines, and ultimately vaccines that are broadly protective against other coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS,” Dr Richard Hatchett, CEO of CEPI, said.

“In countries with sufficient access to them, vaccines are now breaking the link between COVID-19 infection and severe illness or death, and enabling life to return to something approaching normality. But the threat of new variants emerging which can evade the protection of our current vaccines and set the global response back to square one continues to hang over us all,” he added.

“That’s why developing globally accessible vaccines which are broadly protective against COVID-19 variants is imperative for global health security: through these new partnerships we are taking the first steps towards achieving that goal.”

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