Researchers oversold Israeli COVID shot, wasted millions on flop — comptroller

State ombudsman faults Defense Ministry institute for mishandling project and misleading officials on costs, timetable and ability to produce homegrown vaccine

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)
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)

Israel’s bid for a homegrown vaccine against COVID-19 was a “failed” boondoggle that cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of shekels, State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman said Tuesday, accusing the Defense Ministry research lab that ran the project of misleading officials on its progress and costs.

The Brilife vaccine was touted in the early stages of the pandemic as Israel’s answer to a global outcry for a way to combat the deadly virus. Even after Israel secured vaccine supplies from Pfizer, Moderna and other major pharma firms, the Defense Ministry’s Institute for Biological Research in Ness Ziona continued to develop the project until it was scrapped in July 2022 without having produced a shot approved for use.

“The project failed,” Englman wrote.

The report found NIS 230 million ($63.5 million) of public money was invested in the project.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who was not minister during the vaccine development period, nonetheless defended the project, saying it was a reasonable idea under the circumstances, while the Defense Ministry said that the development had nonetheless produced valuable results.

“The biological institute presented a false representation of progress and costs when the reality was completely different,” Englman wrote. “Even if we could accept this in the initial emergency period, we cannot condone conduct that contradicts rules of proper practice after that.”

He sharply criticized the institute’s former chief, Prof. Shmuel Shapira, including for a letter sent to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that prompted the premier to authorize the production of the vaccine.

Sheba Medical Center nurse Hala Litwin injects a dose into Israel’s first human test subject, Segev Harel, as part of trials for Israel’s experimental coronavirus vaccine, BriLife, on November 1, 2020. (Defense Ministry)

Shapira had predicted a vaccine could be quickly developed but the institute’s capabilities did not align with that claim, the report found. The institute had at first estimated it would take around 11 months to produce a vaccine but that stretched to 26 months while estimations of the cost jumped from an initial NIS 63 million ($17.3 million) to an eventual projection of NIS 1.4 billion ($386 million).

Shapira resigned as head of the institute in December 2022.

The development process was carried out without proper oversight from the Defense Ministry, the report found. It also did not follow the institute’s own guidelines and progressed “without establishing quality milestones for progress between the various stages.”

In addition, a national project aimed at producing a vaccine should have included Health Ministry input, Englman said.

The comptroller recommended that the office of the senior Defense Ministry official in charge of the biological research institute examine if the facility would have any real contribution to make for the country in the face of a future pandemic. The office said it welcomed the opportunity to conduct an internal review and draw conclusions.

Gallant responded that developing the vaccine made sense when Netanyahu first authorized the project in February 2020, just as the virus was beginning to spread.

“The decision to embark on the development of an Israeli vaccine, when there was no vaccine in the world and there was no certainty that even if a vaccine were developed Israel would be able to benefit from it – was reasonable,” he said.

The Defense Ministry noted that the vaccine had passed two rounds of clinical trials.

“The production processes and experiments were stopped after most of the country’s citizens were vaccinated,” the ministry said. “The achievements of the biological institute are important and worthy even on an international scale.”

The Biological Institute said it “precisely met Prime Minister Netanyahu’s demands to prepare a quick proposal and that the Prime Minister instructed to ‘remove all bureaucratic barriers’,” according to the Israel Hayom newspaper.

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

Alongside the home development project, Netanyahu pushed for Israel to be at the front of the line to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine which was eventually used for a national vaccination program.

As of Tuesday, 6.7 million of Israel’s nearly 10 million population have had at least one dose of the vaccine, 6.15 million have had two, and 4.5 million have had three doses. A further 846,258 people have had four doses.

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