Their best shots: Israeli efforts to invent a coronavirus vaccine, explained

With healthy hamsters and happy politicians, the Jewish state’s research is going full steam ahead, and boasting of a breakthrough

Nathan Jeffay

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

A doctor shows a prospective vaccine for prevention and of coronavirus infection. (iStock)
A doctor shows a prospective vaccine for prevention and of coronavirus infection. (iStock)

An Israeli team has made the World Health Organization’s periodic report on international vaccine efforts.

In what is believed to be the first appearance for Israeli scientists on the “landscape of COVID-19 candidate vaccines,” the Israel Institute for Biological Research and the Weizmann Institute of Science got a listing for their joint work on a vaccine design.

This comes on the heels of a breakthrough in their attempt to produce a vaccine against the novel coronavirus. The Israeli team is one of 149 that appear in the document.

So what is the breakthrough that is garnering attention for the Israeli researchers, and what kind of vaccine are they planning? Why is a clandestine institute behind the research coming out of the shadows? Finally, what other vaccines are in the Israeli pipeline?

What was the recent breakthrough?

A week and a half ago, scientists in Ness Ziona, near Tel Aviv, revealed that they had designed a vaccine and tested it on hamsters. They wrote that a single dose “was able to protect hamsters against SARS-CoV-2.”

They are confident because, among other factors, vaccinated hamsters lost less body weight after infection than unvaccinated hamsters, and also had healthier-looking lungs.

They didn’t publish the research in a peer-reviewed journal, which is seen as the gold standard of scientific research, but did present both their data and their analysis on an online repository for papers.

Who is behind the vaccine?

There are several vaccine teams in Israel, but none is receiving as much attention from politicians as this one, since it comes from a vaunted Defense Ministry-run institute.

Yonatan Freeman, international relations and national security expert, Political Science Department, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (Jenny Pepperman)

The Israel Institute for Biological Research is a shadowy establishment that normally reveals hardly anything about its work. Political analysts have been staggered by the extent to which it has suddenly, during the pandemic, been propelled in to the public eye, with leaders constantly talking about its work, and even making visits there.

“It’s like if we suddenly started getting updates on what the nuclear reactor in Dimona is doing,” Yonatan Freeman, international relations and national security expert at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told The Times of Israel recently.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) visiting the Israel Institute for Biological Research on June 7, with Health Minister Yuli Edelstein (left) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz (right) . (Amos Ben-Gershom/Israel Government Press Office)

What kind of vaccine is it?

The vaccine is based on the vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV), an animal virus that has already been used in a recently released Ebola vaccine. It involves altering the protein composition of the VSV: replacing the glycoprotein of VSV with the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2.

By doing this, the research team said, it came up with a formula that makes hamsters — and, it hopes, humans — induce production of neutralizing antibodies that can protect from SARS-CoV-2.

Politicians are excited, but are scientists?

Prof. Hervé Bercovier of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU)’s Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics (Lior Mizrahi).

Yes. Some of Israel’s top experts in vaccines and viruses have been impressed by the Biological Institute’s published results.

“I read it carefully, and what they produced was very good,” microbiologist Herve Bercovier told The Times of Israel.

Bercovier, former vice president for research and development at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was wowed that the vaccine design uses a shortcut of sorts, namely the VSV model.

He thinks it was smart to use this model, with its good track record for Ebola, and says this will inspire the confidence of doctors and regulators. “You have a platform that is already approved,” he noted.

Are there any critics?

Tel Aviv University professor Jonathan Gershoni (courtesy)

Prof. Jonathan Gershoni of Tel Aviv University, who is trying to develop his own vaccine based on a recently patented model, told The Times of Israel that he has some criticisms of the Biological Institute’s design.

He said that the vaccinated hamsters in the the institute’s research didn’t retain body weight as well as he would have hoped, as their mass was lower than that of uninfected hamsters. He also said that one of the vaccinated hamsters in the study had signs of infection in the lung.

That being the case, he thinks that the data in the research paper doesn’t support its claims, and he believes that the vaccine in development has benefits, but that they are “not dramatic.”

What happens next?

The institute is a long way off from producing a tested and approved human vaccine. Several stages of testing are needed first. That’s why Israel’s leaders are hedging their bets — continuing to support this and other homegrown vaccine efforts, while signing a deal to buy a vaccine that is being developed by the American biotech company Moderna.

The famously long approval process may be expedited for the Biological Institute by virtue of the Ebola precedent for the vaccine platform, some experts say.

Cyrille Cohen, head of the immunotherapy laboratory at Bar-Ilan University, told The Times of Israel: “If a platform is well-known it’s possible to use the toxicology — data needed to check for possible harmful effects —  from other vaccines based on the same technology, in order to hasten the first part of the approval process.”

What other vaccine projects are in progress?

A lab worker at Migal in an undated photo released by the research institute. (Courtesy: Lior Journo)

An oral vaccine being developed in the Galilee was one of the first to report progress, back in March. The state-funded Migal Galilee Research Institute got a head-start because it has been working for four years toward a vaccine that could be customized for various viruses. This research has given rise to a new startup, MigVax, which is working on the MigVax-101 COVID-19 oral vaccine for humans based on a platform that was shown to be an effective oral vaccine against infectious bronchitis virus in poultry.

Gershoni’s vaccine model has also attracted investment. Last month, Neovii, a Swiss-based biopharmaceutical company, signed a research and license agreement to develop Gershoni’s research into a “novel and potentially life-saving COVID-19 vaccine.” His approach is to target the receptor-binding motif (RBM), a critical structure that enables the virus to bind to and infect a target cell.

Meanwhile, at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Avi Schroeder is developing a vaccine for coronavirus based on an additive he developed, which is added to water to keep shrimps healthy. It is being commercialized by his Technion startup ViAqua Therapeutics.

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