Israeli COVID vaccine starts human trials: ‘I’m giving my body, but no big deal’

Israel has started producing its new coronavirus vaccine. Will it work? Boaz Kolodner and 80 other Israelis have volunteered their immune systems to find out

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

Boaz Kolodner (video screen capture: Ynet)
Boaz Kolodner (video screen capture: Ynet)

Israel has started producing a 15 million-shot batch of its new coronavirus vaccine, and a 47-year-old engineer with no health expertise could end up deciding whether it ends up in clinics, or in the trash.

Like 80 other Israelis, Boaz Kolodner is about to report to doctors for a series of checks before starting the clinical trial that is the vaccine’s first hurdle on the way to regulatory approval. Some will receive placebos; others will get the vaccine.

If even one of the volunteers who receives the actual shot has adverse reactions, it could be the end of the road for the vaccine developed by Israel’s state-run Institute for Biological Research.

The vaccine has so far only been tested on small animals, such as mice, hamsters and rabbits, and on pigs. But Kolodner, who lives near Modiin, said he has no fears. “Frankly I’m not worried,” he said. “Maybe I’m stupid and maybe I’m wrong, but I’m just not scared. The coronavirus, on the other hand, does worry me.”

He added that he feels a sense of national pride for the Israeli innovation behind the vaccine, which has been newly named Brilife, a portmanteau of the Hebrew word for health — bri’ut — and life.

Vials of a potential coronavirus vaccine are seen on an assembly line in a photograph released by the Israel Institute for Biological Research on October 25, 2020. (Defense Ministry)

Kolodner, a married father of three who offered himself in response to a public call for volunteers, talked to The Times of Israel on Wednesday, just one day before he was due to report to doctors for checks, ahead of his anticipated injection on Sunday.

He said: “On Thursday we are going to have a check at Sheba Medical Center, where they will take blood and measurements to check we’re ready, which means we don’t have antibodies from a previous coronavirus infection and obviously that we don’t have coronavirus now.”

“Then they will take us on Sunday and give us the injections. Some of them will be placebo and some of them will be actual injections. We’ll stay in the hospital for 24 hours and then have follow-up on a weekly basis, with blood tests once a week and then after a while, every two weeks. These tests will check that the body is acting as it should, which if I received the actual vaccine means generating antibodies to protect against coronavirus infection.”

Illlustrative image: a nurse gives a volunteer an injection as part of a study of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the US National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., in Binghamton, New York, July 27, 2020. (Hans Pennink/AP)

Kolodner and the other volunteers will live life normally after injection. Asked about his family’s reaction when he signed up, he said: “My father is 82 and my mother is 76. At the start they were a little worried but the more we talked about it the more they became happy about it. And my wife didn’t try to discourage me.” Joking, he added: “Maybe she thought it’s a way to get rid of me.”

Kolodner recognizes that people will hail his contribution to medicine if the vaccine succeeds, but said he views himself as no more deserving of honor than somebody who takes food to a needy family or takes any other step to help others during the pandemic.

“Each of us does what he can for our local area and for society around us,” he said. “Some help the hungry, some help the elderly, and I’m giving my body for the test. Yes, we can make a big fuss, but I don’t feel it’s a big deal.”

He added: “I’m a passenger. the story is really about people who created the vaccine and who are running the trial. I’m just a pandemic volunteer, like the people tutoring kids who can’t go to school. We all just do what we can.”

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