Israel Set to Seal Multi-million Deal on Unapproved Coronavirus Vaccine

Health Ministry working to secure Israel's place in the list of countries to be supplied with vaccines as soon as they are approved for use

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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File photo: A volunteer gets a shot at a clinical trial of a potential COVID-19 vaccine in the Kaiser Permanente Health Study in Seattle, Washington State, March 16, 2020.
File photo: A volunteer gets a shot at a clinical trial of a potential COVID-19 vaccine in the Kaiser Permanente Health Study in Seattle, Washington State, March 16, 2020.Credit: Ted S. Warren / AP
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Israel is about to invest hundreds of millions of shekels in vaccines against the coronavirus that are still under development and have not been approved yet.

The Health Ministry is trying to secure Israel’s place in the list of countries to be supplied with vaccines as soon as they are approved for use. The ministry is in advanced stages of negotiating with several companies, including Moderna, an American biotechnology company that specializes in drug development. The company’s vaccine is the one at the most advanced stage of development.

Optimistic assessments see the end of trials and approval for using the vaccine coming at the start of next year. The development of a vaccine against the coronavirus, which will have immense commercial value for companies whose vaccine is approved, is being promoted by the American administration, which is giving these companies billions of dollars in support, along with money provided by investors and shareholders. The urgency in completing the development of a vaccine lies in the destructive economic effects of the virus.

Coronavirus in Israel. Pictured: COVID-19 sample isolated from a patient in the U.S
Coronavirus in Israel. Pictured: COVID-19 sample isolated from a patient in the U.SCredit: ,AP

Moderna, which has not yet begun clinical trials on people, has already decided to start preparing vaccine doses, under the name RNA-1273, even though the vaccine is still under development and its effectiveness still unproven. The company says it is preparing to produce between 500 million and 1 billion doses of 1 microgram per year. The decision to start producing vaccines was taken on the basis of preliminary results. It was described by some health experts in the U.S. as a bold and risky decision. On the other hand, many people view this as an essential effort to provide vaccines as fast as possible.

“We’re going to start producing it before we know if it works. It will happen as we’re testing the vaccine,” says Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, which is part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, in an interview with the Journal of the American Medical Association. “We may know if the vaccine is effective by November or December. By then we’ll have 100 million vaccine doses.” In his estimate, the company will have several hundreds of millions of doses available to the public by early 2021.

File photo: An Assistant is seen conducting research for a coronavirus vaccine in a laboratory in San Diego, California, March 17, 2020.
File photo: An Assistant is seen conducting research for a coronavirus vaccine in a laboratory in San Diego, California, March 17, 2020.Credit: BING GUAN/ REUTERS

There are more than 130 different projects currently underway around the world in the search for a corona vaccine. Only a handful of companies are close to reaching or have already reached the clinical trial stage. These include AstraZeneca, which is developing a vaccine in collaboration with Oxford University and Johnson and Johnson; the French drug company Sanofi, which is working with the British company GSK; the Chinese company CanSino is expected to begin the third stage of a clinical trial with the drug it has developed.

“There is great motivation for developing a vaccine for corona, not just for commercial reasons,” says Prof. Jonathan Gershoni from the Department of Cell Biology and Immunology at Tel Aviv University, who specializes in viral diseases in humans, including coronavirus. “The corona epidemic led to an extreme situation in terms of its extent and global impact. The entire world is under a grave health threat and at risk of an economic catastrophe. That’s why everyone is trying to find some solution, while cutting corners for companies developing these vaccines.”

Among the many companies and initiatives at play, the project led by Moderna has managed to draw special attention, not just because it has moved ahead of its competitors, but because of the innovative way it planned the vaccine. “Most of the companies working on the vaccine are focusing on one element of the virus which triggers an immune response, the protein envelope of the virus,” says Gershoni.

The vaccine Moderna is developing differently, he says. The idea behind it is that the protein envelope that activates the immune system will be produced by the person being vaccinated. The hope is that such a vaccine will produce enough effective antibodies against the virus.

From a medical perspective, the optimistic view of this vaccine, like the decision to start producing millions of doses, relies on very preliminary results and many assumptions. These will be confirmed or proven wrong down the line.

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