Israel's Biological Institute Director Quits Unexpectedly as COVID Vaccine Development Hits Snags

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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President Reuven Rivlin visiting the institute with Prof. Shapira, May 2020.
President Reuven Rivlin visiting the institute with Prof. Shapira, May 2020.Credit: Kobi Gidon / GPO
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

The director of the Institute for Biological Research, which is developing an Israeli vaccine for the coronavirus, will depart his role in May, Haaretz has learned on Tuesday.

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Shmuel Shapira, 66, has been the driving force behind Israel’s program to develop its own vaccine, and was the one who convinced authorities to launch the program, despite the fact that the institute has always been meant to serve defense and security needs.

The announcement came as the program was failing to meet the timetable and goals publicly set by Shapira. So far, 175 million shekels ($53 million) have been invested in the project. Shapira's replacement has not yet been chosen.

The Israeli vaccine was originally planned to be a single dose, but it has become clear that two doses will be required. The Institute for Biological Research has also been having a hard time finding volunteers for testing the vaccine, and is still in the first of the three necessary trial phases. 

The Institute for Biological Research in Nes Tziona reports for administrative purposes to the Prime Minister’s Office and for professional purposes to the defense minster’s assistant for special means.

In the past, foreign media has reported that chemical and biological weapons have been developed at the institute, including the use of poison in Mossad espionage agency operations. The institute has also been engaged in developing the means to protect Israel against chemical and biological attack.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced last March at a cabinet meeting, in which Shapira participated, that Israel would be among the first countries in the world to develop a vaccine despite a lack of experience in doing so. Netanyahu has issued reports every few months about the progress, which has shown signs of the program being overly optimistic and unrealistic. In addition, at least 10 COVID-19 vaccines have been developed across the world, with Pfizer and Moderna, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, the Russian Sputnik and another four Chinese companies leading the developments. India recently decided to develop its own vaccine as well.

The entrance to the Institute for Biological Research in Nes Tziona.Credit: Dan Keinan

Early on it became clear that Israel’s depleted resources would pose a challenge when competing with giant pharmaceutical firms, which invest billions of dollars and have a great deal of experience in developing vaccines.

A year after launching its program, Israel is still in the first phase of three in developing a vaccine.  A one-dose vaccine was initially the goal, which changed to two doses later in the process. The project is also suffering from a lack of volunteers. Some 300 who did volunteer at the start of the project later ran into bureaucratic obstacles because they weren’t vaccinated and therefore not eligible for a Green Pass. The problem was later solved, making it possible to recruit about 600 volunteers for the second phase.

But even if the Institute for Biological Research proves its vaccine’s efficacy, the third phase of the process requires testing it on tens of thousands of volunteers. It’s expected that the institute will request the assistance of India, Brazil and possibly other countries for this purpose. This will effectively mean turning their citizens into guinea pigs for the Israeli vaccine.

Sources in the Israeli health care system estimate that the second phase will end in August but that it will take months before the vaccine is ready if the third phase is implemented and turns out to be successful. That means that the Israeli vaccine won't be ready before the end of 2021, and even then Israel will need massive assistance from an international pharmaceutical company in order to manufacture it. The Institute for Biological Research doesn’t have the physical space to set up production lines for tens of millions of doses.

Prof. Shmuel Shapira studied medicine and did most of his military service in the Israel Navy. Among other things served as the IDF Head of Trauma Branch and later the National Center for Trauma. After his discharge with the rank of colonel he worked in administrative positions in Jerusalem's Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem. He is trained as an anaesthesiologist.

Shapira started working at the Institute for Biological Research about eight years ago. His predecessor, Dr. Avigdor Shafferman, quarrelled with some of his employees, with several of them even filing million dollar shekel lawsuits against the institute.

Shapira brought a new and positive atmosphere to the institute and reinstated proper work relations, but displayed weaknesses in other administrative tasks. Shortly before the outbreak of the pandemic Brig. Gen. (res.) Moshe Edri, the assistant defense minister for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) threats, who supervises the institute, decided to close several units and to reduce the work force. Some 300 people work at the institute, about half of them chemists, biologists, pharmacologists and bacteriologists, who are considered leaders in their field.

The Defense Ministry announced that "Prof. Shmuel Shapira will step down from his position as director general of the biological institute as planned, at the conclusion of a term of eight years in administration, as determined in advance.”

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