The Israeli COVID Vaccine Has Taken Its Last Breath

From great fanfare to a whisper: After less than a year, NRx Pharmaceuticals has announced it is leaving its COVID-19 BriLife vaccine initiative. The Israeli government will announce it is seeking alternatives

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
The end of Israel COVID Vaccine Venture
NRx is traded on Wall Street, and therefore was obligated to inform the stock exchange.Credit: Dado Ruvic/Reuters, Tsafrir Abayov/AP, Israel institute for biological research. Artwork: Anastasia Shub
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

The demise of BriLife, the Israeli COVID-19 vaccine project, whose development was announced by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about two years ago, didn't surprise anyone. In spite of that, its ending was clandestine and modest.

Nobody bothered to "attend the funeral" or to express condolences, and what began with great fanfare at the Israel Institute for Biological Research in Nes Tziona – on the way to an Israeli "vaccine project" that would cancel dependence on the international pharmaceuticals companies – is ending with a whisper.

The news of the product's cancellation came from the American NRx Pharmaceuticals company, which signed a cooperation agreement with the Biological Institute, rubber-stamped by the Defense Ministry, less than a year ago. NRx is traded on Wall Street, and therefore was obligated to inform the stock exchange.

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

About a month ago CEO Dr. Jonathan Javitt, an American Jew who was living in Israel, was replaced by Robert Besthof. Apparently the changeover accelerated the decision to abandon the initiative after an investment of about $3 million. NRx is making every effort to downplay its involvement in the project.

A question from Haaretz went unanswered a few days ago. The announcement to NRx's investors was laconic: "A decision has been made not to continue with the BriLife-COVID-19 initiative."

The Defense Ministry stated, "NRx has announced that due to internal considerations that are not related to the continued development and commercialization of the Israeli coronavirus vaccine, it will not continue the cooperation with Israel. The Biological Institute and the Sheba Medical Center commercial company are examining other alternatives."

The Prime Minister's Office spokeswoman did not reply to Haaretz, and the other godfathers of the ostentatious, ambitious and superfluous project also chose to maintain their silence. The list includes Netanyahu, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, the former director of the Biological Institute Prof. Shmuel Shapira, the present director Dr. Shmuel Yitzhaki, and the Director of Special Measures at the Defense Ministry Moshe Edri, who oversees the institute.. Most of them enthusiastically supported the initiative, although in their heart of hearts they knew that it had no chance, and so at least 175 million shekels ($54 million) went down the drain.

A volunteer recives a dose of vaccination during the first phase of the clinical trial of the Israeli developed COVID-19 vaccine, last year. Credit: Oren Ben Khakun

The vision: a vaccine enterprise

BriLife was born during the wave of apocalyptic scenarios and panic that swept the world in early 2020, when Prof. Shapira convinced Netanyahu that his scientists could quickly develop a vaccine for COVID-19. Shapira saw a once in a lifetime opportunity to improve the status of the Biological Institute and its employees and to advance his personal prestige. It should be noted that even before the outbreak of the pandemic Edri had decided to cut the institute's budget, reduce the number of employees and close the vaccine unit.

Netanyahu agreed immediately and ordered the allocation of a special budget for the initiative, on the way to an Israeli vaccine enterprise.

"Maybe if Israel works fast enough, with the proper budgeting, and with its talented scientists, it's possible that on this issue too it will precede the rest of the world," said Netanyahu, who was well aware of the political benefits of significant achievements in the battle against COVID-19 during his relentless election campaigns in the last three years. The result was a reversal of the trend: Not only did they not close the vaccine unit or downsize the workforce – but the budget of the entire Biological Institute was increased.

Most of the public was very happy with the project, garnering support from most of the country's media outlets. Only few in the medical-scientific community, as well as this writer, expressed skepticism regarding the feasibility of the project and the ability of the Biological Institute to accomplish the task.

Most of the question marks hovered above the Biological Institute's experience and capabilities in the field of vaccines, as well as its meager budget vis-a-vis global pharamceutical giants.

The megalomania surrounding the "blue-and-white" vaccine continued even after Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Russian and Chinese companies developed vaccines with proven effectiveness. At the same time, the Biological Institute failed to progress, had difficulty finding volunteers and got stuck during the second stage of clinical trials.

Since its establishment in 1952 the institute has been involved several times in developing civilian projects, but its main designation is for military purposes. The 300 employees – half of whom are engaged in chemistry, biology, microbiology, biotechnology, mathematics and other fields – are responsible for providing means of protection from chemical and biological weapons.

According to foreign sources, the institute also developed offensive weapons over the years, including poisons that were used in several assassination operations. When it comes to vaccines the institute succeeded only once: against anthrax. It should be noted that this is easier than what is required to fight COVID-19, and even it took about seven years and ended in a commission of inquiry.

In any case, In May 2021, Shapira resigned from the institute, like a captain abandoning a sinking ship. Since then, he has managed to be appointed the CTO of Scentech Medical, founded by convicted murdered Harel Hershtik.

Edri, who has since been appointed as the director-general of the Atomic Energy Commission, appointed Yitzhaki, who realized that the chances of progress in the project were slim and nevertheless continued on. Meanwhile, the Israeli government also changed hands and Bennett became prime minister. Gantz remains in the Defense Ministry.

In July 2021 the Defense Ministry signed a commercial agreement with NRx. Javitt declared that he intended to continue with development of the vaccine, to conclude the second stage and to move on to the third. Trials were supposed to take place in Ukraine, Georgia and Hungary, and it was later reported that the manufacturing plant was supposed to be built in Hungary. Even if the Biological Institute benefits in the future from any byproducts of what has been achieved so far, there is no question that this was a political vanity project. Instead of cutting their losses and admitting failure at an early stage, the Defense Ministry decided to entrench itself and continue with a project it knew was doomed to fail.

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