Israel’s biological institute reports ‘significant progress’ on virus vaccine

Head of secretive defense facility tells Netanyahu the institute will soon start testing on animals, but working vaccine still long way off

Technicians carry out a diagnostic test for coronavirus, March 19, 2020. (Flash90)
Technicians carry out a diagnostic test for coronavirus, March 19, 2020. (Flash90)

Israel’s defense biological research institute has made “significant progress” in developing a vaccine against COVID-19 and will soon start testing on animals, the Prime Minister’s Office said Tuesday.

According to a statement, the head of the defense facility, Prof. Shmuel Shapira, updated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the institute’s progress in developing a vaccine.

Regardless, vaccine development and safety testing for mass public use is expected to take many months.

In early February, before the virus reached Israel, Netanyahu instructed the Israel Institute for Biological Research (IIBR), a secretive unit that works under the PMO, to work to create a vaccine against the virus and to establish a vaccine factory.

“It is possible that even on this issue, if we work fast enough, with an appropriate budget and the talented people that we have, that Israel will be ahead of the world,” Netanyahu said at the time.

According to foreign media reports, the IIBR is involved in developing chemical and biological weapons and antidotes and defenses against them.

The Israel Institute for Biological Research, is seen in this file photo, hidden behind shrubs and barbed-wire in the Israeli town of Ness Tziona, south of Tel Aviv, Oct. 14,1998. (AP Photo/Mark Levie)

Earlier this month, a report in the Haaretz daily claiming IIBR had made a breakthrough was denied. According to the report, scientists at the institute made a significant breakthrough in understanding the biological mechanism and qualities of the coronavirus and were expected to announce the completion of the development of a vaccine for COVID-19.

“There has been no breakthrough in the efforts of the biological institute to find a vaccine for the coronavirus or to develop testing kits. The institute’s work is conducted according to an orderly work plan and it will take time. If and when there will be something to report, it will be done in an orderly fashion,” the Defense Ministry told Haaretz in response to the report.

“The biological institute is a world-renowned research and development agency, which relies on experienced researchers and scientists with great knowledge and quality infrastructures. There are now more than 50 experienced scientists working at the institute on researching and developing a medical remedy for the virus.”

The World Health Organization said last week that at least 20 vaccines are in development for COVID-19. The first clinical trials in humans began on March 16 in the United States.

Dr. Anthony Fauci of the US National Institutes of Health has said that any vaccine would likely take 12 to 18 months before it gained regulatory approval.

Several Israeli companies are working on treatments and potential vaccines for coronavirus.

On Monday, Israeli life-sciences company Pluristem Therapeutics said it had dosed three patients in two different hospitals in Israel with PLX cells under a compassionate use program for the treatment of COVID-19.

According to the company, PLX cells respond to chemical distress signals from tissues that have been damaged by ischemia (inadequate blood flow), muscle trauma, or inflammation, by secreting a range of therapeutic proteins that trigger the body’s own repair mechanisms.

It added that PLX cells may “potentially reduce the incidence and/or severity of COVID-19 pneumonia and pneumonitis leading hopefully to a better prognosis for the patients. Previous pre-clinical findings of PLX cells revealed therapeutic benefit in animal studies of pulmonary hypertension, lung fibrosis, acute kidney injury and gastrointestinal injury which are potential complications of the severe COVID-19 infection.”

Pluristem said it expects to enroll additional patients in Israel in the coming days and anticipates providing updates on clinical outcomes once significant data has been gathered.

The state-funded Migal Galilee institute told The Times of Israel earlier this month that it was on track to be ready for testing within a few weeks.

Migal has successfully developed a vaccine against avian coronavirus which affects poultry and is making genetic adjustments to adapt the vaccine to the human strain of coronavirus.

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