Netanyahu's Promise of Coronavirus Vaccine Factory Is No Joke

The alternatives present greater risks for public health and the economy. But a facility is as much as 7 years away

Medical workers in protective suits attend to a patient inside an isolated ward of Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan, China, February 16, 2020.
CHINA DAILY/ REUTERS

“I have ordered the Biological Institute to act as quickly as possible to produce a vaccine against the virus and establish a vaccine plant in Israel.” That’s what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed last week, eliciting not a little mockery. The entire world is in a race to develop a coronavirus vaccine, so ordering it to go into production is a little odd.

Netanyahu’s order came after he met with Prof. Shmuel Shapira, the head of the Israel Institute for Biological Research, who said the institute was capable of handling the task.

As Chaim Levinson reported in Haaretz over the weekend, the prime minister not only took Shapira’s promises seriously but ordered the project to be budgeted, thereby saving the institute’s vaccine unit from being shuttered as had been planned.

In the meantime, Israel has acquired samples of the coronavirus, now known as COVID-19, from the World Health Organization, to help develop a vaccine. Institute staffers and perhaps other researchers will thus join the global effort, which WHO estimates should take less than a year.

As to the second part of Netanyahu’s promise, to set up a manufacturing facility in Israel will have no impact on the coronavirus threat. Building a facility is a complicated process that requires very specific expertise. It is also risky, both from a technological and financial perspective.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s vow is not entirely divorced from reality. Over the last few years, the Health Ministry and others in the government have been doing the groundwork needed to develop a vaccine plant and have even taken the first concrete measures to advance it.

The British company GSK, one of the few players in the global vaccines industry, has been tapped to help with the project, perhaps in cooperation with a second company. The Negev town of Yeruham has been chosen as the site.

Erecting a facility, if it does happen, will take between four and seven years. The facility won’t develop vaccines but manufacture them for the domestic market and possibly for export.

The push for the vaccine-manufacturing facility started more than a decade ago with the outbreak of the swine flu.

That event didn’t leave a mark on the Israeli consciousness, but for the government it was a worrying milestone: Israel found itself in the year of the outbreak, 2009, without a supply of vaccines. At the last moment, officials were able to order supplies from overseas at the steep cost of 470 million shekels ($137 million).

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

The swine flu incident demonstrated to officials that in the event of a global pandemic, Israel would be faced with two bad choices. In the first, manufacturers would be able to demand high prices for vaccines knowing that buyers have no choice or they will face a health crisis. In the second, global demand would be so big that Israel would find itself competing for limited supplies.

“The question is not only whether we can get vaccines but when we’ll get them,” said Dr. Udi Kaliner, deputy head of public health services at the Health Ministry and the official at the center of the vaccine initiative.

“We need three months to half a year from the time the virus is characterized until [vaccine] production begins, while the pandemic is happening now. ... Having our own vaccine factory is an important element of security and independence. Independence is critical,” he said.

The Health Ministry weighed three options: Leave the situation as it is and purchase vaccines as needed; reach a “retainer’ agreement with a manufacturer to ensure a production line is reserved for Israeli needs at a pre-determined price, or develop its own facility.

In the last case, the plan was not for the government to develop the facility but to have one or more private companies do it, for which they would be awarded a grant or tax benefits. The government would guarantee it would buy vaccines produced by the plant.

The Health Ministry estimates that this model will entail direct costs to the state of about $100 million spread over several years. It would employ about 250 people.

“It’s like the constant question about what costs more – to pay rent or buy a home? said Kaliner, “The model presented by the National Economic Council, which investigated the long-term costs – over the next 25 years – examined the option of building a facility or paying a retainer, found that building the factory was cheaper.”

Tent with beds for potential coronavirus patients at Sheba Medical Center, February 2020.
Tomer Appelbaum

The plan has won the backing of other arms of the government, such as the Economy and Industry Ministry, and took on more urgency several weeks ago in the wake of a local shortage of vaccine during a season when the flu was slightly more widespread than usual. The coronavirus added to the urgency, as did the election.

Backing up the council’s conclusions are the fact that pandemics are unusual but happen at least 304 times in a century. When they do, the toll is enormous. A pandemic like the Asian flu of the 1950s could infect a quarter of the population. In Israel that would put 4,000 people in intensive care and 2,000 on respirators, with expectations of 6,000 deaths in the end.

In a pandemic on the scale of the 1918 Spanish flu, 45,000 deaths could result, with 340,000 people admitted to hospital and 18,000 on respirators. High rates of absenteeism from work would bring the economy to a standstill.

“When we examine the loss to the economy under different scenarios ... a pandemic reaching Israel that affects 35% of the population and leads to the deaths of 2.5% of sufferers, a vaccine would prevent the loss of 2% of GDP, or $6 billion in today’s dollars,” said Kaliner.