Israel's Unit for Developing Vaccines Was Shutting Down. Then Came Coronavirus, and Netanyahu

Official procedures to close the unit were already underway amid management issues and disagreements with the Defense Ministry

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a discussion to examine Israel's readiness to handle coronavirus, February 2020.
Haim Tzach / GPO

The unit at the Israel Institute for Biological Research that deals with developing vaccines was in the process of shutting down when  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered it to remain in operation to develop a vaccine against the strain of coronavirus, now known as COVID-19, that has claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people, almost all of them in China.

A government committee had advised that the unit be shut down and steps had already been taken to shutter the unit. The work of the Biological Institute is under the supervision of Moshe Edri, the assistant defense minister for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) threats.

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

It operates a unit that develops vaccines for emergencies, which made headlines after anthrax vaccine experiments were conducted on Israeli soldiers in the early 1990s. The Israel Medical Association (IMA) called the effort unjustifiable.

An external committee was established to examine if and how the institute as a whole should continue operating amid management issues and disagreements with the Defense Ministry over the past year. The committee has recommended that the institute undergo several changes, including halting the development of vaccines.

The committee has yet to publish its conclusions, however, and they have not been presented to Defense Minister Naftali Bennett.

The committee's work was not carried out in coordination with the National Security Council, nor were strategic issues concerning Israel's ability to function in emergency situations examined.

Although the panel's final conclusions have not been issued, they have already been included in the institute's work plans and Edri had ordered that steps be taken to begin the shutdown of the vaccine unit.

Two weeks ago Netanyahu convened a meeting regarding Israel's readiness to deal with the coronavirus. Among the participants in the discussion was the head of the Biological Institute, Prof. Shmuel Shapira, who announced the institute has come up with two possible directions for the development of a coronavirus vaccine. His announcement came as a surprise to those ih attendance.

Sources familiar with the issue told Haaretz that Netanyahu, who didn't know that procedures to close the institute were underway, was encouraged by Shapira's announcement and tasked the institute with developing the vaccine, while allocating considerable sums for the project and halting the closure of the unit.

Medical personnel arrive with medical supplies in transport aircraft of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force at the Wuhan Tianhe International Airport in China, on February 13, 2020.
CHINA DAILY/ REUTERS

The Defense Ministry said in a statement that "The Biological Institute has produced and continues to produce several vaccines as a medical response to bio-terror threats. Regarding the committee, it has yet to finish its work and therefore no recommendations were presented to the assistant minister, and of course not to the defense minister." 

The statement added that "In accordance with the prime minister's instruction and following the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, the Biological Institute is operating vigorously and with determination to advance two research and development plans – a coronavirus vaccine to be administered as a preemptive measure, and antibodies to treat those who have contracted [the disease]."

"The R&D plan for a possible medical response to the COVID-19 virus has been presented to the defense minister," the statement added.

The death toll from the coronavirus outbreak in mainland China rose to 1,367 as of the end of the day Wednesday, up 254 from Tuesday, China's National Health Commission (NHC) said. Across mainland China, there were 15,152 new confirmed infections, bringing the total to 59,804, it said.

Reuters contributed to this report.