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‘We won’t be first’: Israeli vaccine research prioritizing quality over speed

Head of Institute for Biological Research tells Knesset committee that trials on locally made drug could begin in October, but phase three testing likely won’t start this year

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, speaks with the director of the Institute of Biological Research, Prof. Shmuel Shapira, at the institute's laboratory in Ness Ziona on August 6, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)
illustrative: Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, speaks with the director of the Institute of Biological Research, Prof. Shmuel Shapira, at the laboratory in Ness Ziona on August 6, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)

The head of a national research laboratory leading Israel’s race for a coronavirus vaccine appeared to put a damper on hopes Tuesday that Israel would soon have a remedy for the pandemic, but said whatever researchers eventually do develop will be good for the country’s citizens.

Prof. Shmuel Shapira, director of the Defense Ministry’s secretive Institute for Biological Research, told the Knesset Science and Technology Committee that an Israeli vaccine will be ready for human trials in October, though it won’t be ready for phase three testing until next year.

“From the first moment I [knew] that we [would] not be the first, and those who apparently beat us, we beat them in other things,” Shapira said. “I think that our goal is not to be the first, but to get a good vaccine for the citizens of Israel.”

“We hope that the second phase will finish towards the end of the year, [by] the end of December,” Shapira said. “The third phase is much more complicated and requires time.”

Earlier this month Defense Minister Benny Gantz visited the institute and said initial tests of the vaccine have been promising, allowing for human trials in the coming months.

Days later, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced that his country had developed the first effective coronavirus vaccine. However, the vaccine has been widely dismissed as unreliable because Russia did not carry out phase three testing, which involves testing the vaccine on thousands of people and closely tracking its efficacy.

Russian officials have said that large-scale production of the vaccine will start in September, and mass vaccination may begin as early as October.

In June, the Israeli institute announced it had completed successful coronavirus vaccine trials on rodents.

In a paper published on the website of bioRxiv, an online repository for papers that haven’t yet been peer-reviewed, the institute said it hoped to have a finished vaccine in a year, or possibly even earlier.

In the abstract of the paper, the researchers said their vaccine, which they tested on hamsters, “results in rapid and potent induction of neutralizing antibodies against SARS-CoV-2,” the virus that causes COVID-19.

Earlier this month a vaccine adviser to the government cautioned that there was no guarantee that the shots being developed will prove widely effective.

Israel has not pinned all its hopes on locally developed immunization, and signed a deal with Moderna in June for the potential purchase of its coronavirus vaccine.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein has also expressed interest in the Russian vaccine, if it proves to be safe and effective.

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