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Diplomatic efforts to procure more COVID-19 vaccine candidates underway'

Coronavirus vaccine under development (illustrative)
(photo credit: DADO RUVIC/REUTERS)

A senior Health Ministry official said that the ministry is trying to ensure Israeli citizens have access to a vaccine as soon as possible.

Israel is trying to reach agreements to purchase coronavirus vaccines from several other potential developers, according to a senior Health Ministry official who is in the know.

“There are several diplomatic efforts going on behind the scenes,” he told The Jerusalem Post in a private briefing. “We are trying everything we can to ensure Israeli citizens have access to a vaccine as soon as possible.”

The source said that he could not discuss details and that he would “not confirm or deny” that Israel is evaluating either the Russian Sputnik V vaccine candidate or the Chinese-made vaccine. He also said that some deals might have already been made but not yet made public because of confidentiality agreements.

Recall, the Health Ministry has already signed with two American companies to be among the first recipients of their vaccines if they are successful: Moderna and Arcturus.

Although the individual said that Israel is working fast to ensure it gets access to the vaccine candidates it wants, the country is also operating with caution.

Concurrently, the Israel Institute for Biological Research (IIBR) is developing its own vaccine candidate: Brilife.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said earlier this week that Phase 1 human trials are expected to start by the end of the month, though another source close to the situation told the Post that the kick-off date could be pushed until early November.

The Health Ministry official cautioned that Israel could not “put all its eggs in this basket,” as less than 15% of vaccines that are in development succeed and make it to the market.

“But these figures don’t tell you anything – not with these technologies and not at this time,” he said. “It is a general pointer, but not an estimation of success since there are so many trials going on.”

TODAY THERE are close to 200 companies or research teams working on the development of a coronavirus vaccine. According to The New York Times vaccine tracker, some 59 vaccine candidates are already in the midst of clinical trials. Another six are approved for early or limited use.

“There are enough attempts that some or one of them statistically should succeed,” he said.

The official added that there are differences in the chances of success between older and newer vaccine technologies. Moderna, for example, whose leadership has expressed high hopes for the development of a vaccine to combat the novel coronavirus, has never completed production of a similar vaccine.

Moderna’s mRNA-1273 uses the messenger RNA delivery platform to encode for an S-2P immunogen. The investigatory vaccine directs the body’s cells to express the spike in protein to elicit a broad immune response.

“We have not been able to develop an mRNA vaccine yet,” Moderna’s chief medical officer, Tal Zaks, told the Post in a previous interview. “This is a relatively novel technology. We have been at it for about five years and we have consistently been able to show, at least in early studies, that this technology is able to generate neutralizing antibodies.”

In contrast, IIBR’s vaccine candidate is based on a well-known method of vaccination, the institute has said. What is new is the use of a vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) – a type of virus that does not cause diseases in humans.

Through genetic engineering, proteins are attached to the VSV virus to form coronavirus “crowns” that are identified by the body as COVID-19. As a result, the body produces antibodies against it.

The Phase I trial requires the approval of the Health Ministry’s Helsinki Committee, which oversees the rights, safety and well-being of participants recruited for medical research. Such approval had not yet been granted earlier this week.

“It’s a big step – a human trial – and you need to make sure you don’t hurt anyone,” a second Health Ministry official said. “All of the subjects are volunteers, but we still need to be as safe as can be.”

Some 100 people are expected to participate in the Phase 1 trial through both Hadassah-University Medical Center in Jerusalem and Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer. The hospitals have already started recruiting volunteers.

ISRAEL HAS never developed a vaccine on its own.

“When people talk about antibiotics or vaccines, these are life-saving technologies,” the source said. “If you undermine the strong belief that people have that these are safe and efficient technologies because you have hurried, the cost could be much higher than you expect.”

He said that if the first COVID-19 vaccine gets a “bad wrap,” it will hurt the rest of them. And, “assuming a vaccine is the way out of this pandemic, it will make it much harder to surface.”

He also said that along the way, this could mean that timelines are not secure.

Moreover, he explained that it is often only in Phase 3 trials that test vaccines on at least 30,000 people that some of the unknown side effects begin to surface – side effects that impact one in 1,000 or one in 10,000 people, but when given ultimately to millions of people, this “is not a few patients.”

Israel, he said, would likely have to partner with another, larger country to complete its Phase 3 trial of Brilife, if the vaccine candidate gets that far.

“All medicine products have some side effects,” he stressed. “For vaccines these are usually redness, swelling, [and] pain at the place of injection. Considering how bad this pandemic is, these are not the side effects we are worried about.”

The greater concern would be the long-term effects. Traditionally, vaccine development takes seven to 10 years and Phase 3 trials two or three years of this timeline.

“This is a new illness,” the official said. “We don’t know the long-term effects of the illness and we won’t know the long-term effects of the vaccine” when it is first administered.

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