Calling Netanyahu's Coronavirus Bluff: Why Israel Isn't Likely to Develop a Vaccine Anytime Soon

Scientists at the Institute for Biological Research know that the prime minister's order to start a 'vaccination project' in the wake of China's outbreak is spin, at best

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A man is checked for fever amid the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, February 1, 2020.
A man is checked for fever amid the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, February 1, 2020.Credit: CHINA DAILY/ REUTERS
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's announcement on Sunday that he had ordered the Health Ministry and Israel Institute for Biological Research to establish a "vaccine project" against the coronavirus means, at best, that Netanyahu has gotten carried away. At worst, it is another of his empty populist declarations.

"If we work fast enough, with appropriate budgeting and the talented people we have, Israel could be ahead of the world," Netanyahu said.

It's true that the scientists at the Institute for Biological research – chemists, biologists, microbiologists, engineers and technicians – are at the forefront of their fields. But the institute is a small organization, with about 300 employees and a limited budget, certainly compared to similar institutes in the West, Russia and China.

The institute does not specialize in research and development of pharmaceuticals, antibiotics or vaccines for the Israeli population, let alone the rest of the world. Its official objective is development of protective measures against biological and chemical weapons.

Foreign publications have claimed that the institute is involved in developing biological and chemical weapons, or at least used to be.

In 1992, The New York Times reported that an El Al transport plane that crashed in Amsterdam was carrying 189 liters of dimethyl methylphosphonate (DMMP), a chemical used in the production of Sarin nerve gas, which was designated for the Biological Institute.

On at least two occasions, toxins were found to have been used in assassinations attributed to the Mossad. In 1997, after the failed assassination attempt against Khaled Mashal, Israel admitted to the operation and even saved the life of the Hamas political bureau chief by sending an antidote that was originally meant for the Israeli operatives if they accidentally came into contact with the poison. In 2010, a leading Hamas official who was engaged in smuggling weapons from Iran to the Gaza Strip, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, was assassinated by means of poison in a hotel in Dubai.

The Israel Institute for Biological Research in Nes Tziona.Credit: Dan Keinan

In 1983, the deputy director of the institute, Marcus Klingberg, was revealed to be a Soviet spy. Along with his wife, Klingberg passed all of the institute's secrets over to the Russians, including bacterial cultures.

The Institute for Biological Research was established in 1952 as part of the Israel Defense Forces' Science Corps, and later became a civilian organization. It operates in a spacious building that once belonged to an Arab effendi whose lands were nestled in the heart of the orchards in Nes Tziona. Over the years, it has grown and expanded. It is now surrounded by a wall and contains laboratories for the various fields of research and habitats for the animals used for experiments.

Technically, the institute is under the supervision of the Prime Minister's Office, but is in close communication with the Defense Ministry.

As of today we know of only two cases in which the institute's scientists were involved in the development of vaccines for the public. The first, in 1956-57, involved three strains of the polio virus. Israel became the third country (after the United States and Denmark) to achieve that capability to control the epidemic.

The developer of the vaccine was bacteriologist Prof. Natan Goldblum, who worked from a laboratory in the Tzahalon (Dajani) Hospital in Jaffa as part of the work of the institute. Goldblum and his team circuitously acquired the weakened strains and know-how from the United States, and used production methods based on the experiments of Prof. Jonas Salk.

The second case, in the early 1990s, was the development of the anthrax vaccine. The project was code named "Omer 2," and was undertaken out of fear that Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, had developed biological weapons that made use of the anthrax bacteria.

Dr. Avigdor Shafferman, whose specialty was anthrax and would go on to become director general of the institute, cooperated with the Defense Ministry and then-Chief Medical Officer Brig. Gen. Giora Martinovitz. They carried out experiments to test the effectiveness of the vaccine on 800 soldiers, in violation of the Helsinki Accords, which define how, when and on whom it is experiments on human beings are permitted. Those soldiers (from Unit 8200, paratroopers and other units but not pilots) became guinea pigs without their knowledge.

The exposure of the affair sparked a public uproar and resulted in investigative committees and tightened regulations, but Shafferman and the others were not punished. Senior officials at the Biological Institute have claimed that the anthrax vaccine was developed on a whim of Shafferman's, who invested superfluous amounts of money when the vaccine could have been developed and purchased in the United States. Shafferman's tough administrative style, until his retirement in 2013, led to problems with workplace relations, protests, lawsuits and even strikes.

Since the appointment of Prof. Shmuel Shapira as director general of the institute, it has enjoyed industrial peace. But that's a long way from developing a vaccine for a virus like the coronavirus, or SARS before it. Such innovations require huge budgets that only pharmaceutical giants or the world's largest research institutions can afford.

Developing vaccines for strains of flu requires growing viruses in isolation, in cells or eggs, and then vaccinating animals to examine the effects. Afterwards, there are several stages of clinical trials in human beings. Under optimal conditions, it would take at least a year. Moreover, Israel does not have experience in producing anti-viral vaccines and, except for the polio and anthrax cases, has never done it.

With the outbreak of SARS in 2003, it was leaked that the Biological Institute and Defense Ministry were considering developing a vaccine in Israel. The media rushed to report it, but it never happened and won't happen this time either.

You may wonder how Israel managed to develop and produce the anthrax vaccine. The answer lies in the major difference between anthrax and coronavirus. Anthrax is easier to grow and the vaccine was effectively a copy of the American vaccine. Still, the development of the vaccine took six to seven years.

It's a shame that the officials at the Health Ministry and Institute for Biological Research who attended the cabinet discussion on the coronavirus panic, all of whom know the truth, kept quiet and played along with Netanyahu's misrepresentation.

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