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Report: Leader of embattled homegrown Israeli vaccine effort to step down

Unclear who will replace Shmuel Shapira as head of Institute for Biological Research; rapid inoculation drive has raised doubts about need for domestic shot

Director of the Institute of Biological Research, Prof. Shmuel Shapira, at the laboratory in Ness Ziona on August 6, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)
Director of the Institute of Biological Research, Prof. Shmuel Shapira, at the laboratory in Ness Ziona on August 6, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)

Prof. Shmuel Shapira, the head of the Defense Ministry’s Biological Institute and the driving force behind efforts to develop an Israeli COVID-19 vaccine, will reportedly step down in May, in a surprise turn of events that casts further doubt on the future of the local inoculation venture.

According to the Haaretz report, Shapira, 66, had been expected to stay in the post for at least another year, until he reaches retirement age, and even then could have had his tenure extended. It was not clear who will replace Shapira, the report said.

The announcement came with the local vaccine’s development lagging significantly behind that of its international competitors, and with the vast majority of eligible Israelis having already gotten the Pfizer inoculation (though many experts expect COVID-19 vaccines to become a regular necessity, like flu shots).

The Israeli vaccine is still deep in the trial phase. In December, the Institute for Biological Research successfully completed the first stage of testing and started the second phase, which is ongoing.

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

The approval of several international vaccines and Israel’s rapid inoculation campaign have raised questions about the need for a domestically produced option that will be ready for distribution long after its competitors.

Health Ministry figures show that so far 5,189,210 people, or 55.8% of the population, have received at least the first of two shots of the Pfizer vaccine; of those, 4,601,075 have also had the second dose, amounting to 49.48% of the population.

The head of the Ness Ziona-based laboratory told the Knesset in January that the vaccine would likely only be ready for distribution to the public in the summer. He blamed over-regulation and lack of sufficient government support for significant delays in its trial process.

East Jerusalemites receive COVID-19 vaccine injections at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem Old City on February 26, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Some 15 million doses are being produced of the vaccine, which unlike those manufactured by international competitors Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca, is given in a single dose, Shapira told the Knesset’s Science and Technology Committee.

The Defense Ministry told Channel 13 News that the vaccine was necessary to ensure Israel would have independent access to inoculations. It has been described by other officials as a backup plan to supplement vaccines purchased from pharmaceutical firms based abroad.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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