Israel COVID Vaccine: Yes, We Can!

In 1946, Ethel Merman sang Irving Berlin’s spectacular song, “Anything you can do, I can do better!” on Broadway in the hit musical Annie Get Your Gun. Annie Oakley insists that she can do everything better than frank competitor Frank Butler: she sings softer, louder, sweeter …

Design a first-class fourth-generation multi-role jet fighter? We can, and we did, the Lavi, in the 1980s. (America rejected it).

Send a spaceship to the moon? Launched on February 22, 2019, Beresheet was within a few yards of successfully landing on the surface of the Moon.

Design a drug to reduce relapses of multiple sclerosis? Teva did it – Copaxone.

Hadassah-University Medical Center Professor Yossi Karko (left) and Hannah Drori, head of the hospital’s clinical research center, administer the Brilife vaccine to a volunteer (credit: HADASSAH)

Create all-weather missile interceptors to shoot down short- and long-range rockets, with 95% success? We did it: Iron Dome and Arrow. The US military now deploys two Iron Dome batteries. The United States buys more weapons from Israel than from any other country.

Developing an effective COVID-19 vaccine, even superior? Instantly? Piece of cake, and this, for a small country no more populous than the modest Chinese city of Wuhan.

Here’s the story of Israel’s coronavirus vaccine. Warning: it may not have a happy ending. I relied in part on the excellent reporting by Maayan Hoffman of The Jerusalem Post and Ricky Ben-David of The Times of Israel.

What happened on the night of Saturday, February 1, 2020: Just three weeks after Chinese authorities identified the new coronavirus and 20 days before the first case was confirmed in Israel, when a woman tested positive after returning from the quarantine on the Diamond Princess ship in Japan?

Professor Shmuel Shapira, director of the Israel Institute for Biological Research, since 2013, received a phone call. He tells reporter Hoffman that then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Shapira to consider developing and manufacturing an Israeli vaccine against COVID-19.

Within a few months, a vaccine was being tested; IIBR announced in August 2020 that it was ready for a phase I clinical trial. Netanyahu asked IIBR to begin establishing a production facility.

In December 2020, IIBR researchers published their groundbreaking idea in the leading scientific journal Nature Communications: “We demonstrate that a single-dose vaccine results in a rapid and potent induction of neutralizing antibodies to SARS-CoV-2. Collectively, we suggest the recombinant VSV-∆G spike as a safe, effective and protective vaccine against SARS-CoV-2. ”

More on what that medical jargon means, below.

WHAT IS the true story of IIBR in Ness Ziona? What role does the IIBR play and why is it shrouded in so much secrecy?

The Israel Biological Research Institute, Ness Ziona, was founded in 1952 as a government research institute. Above all, their mission is to conduct R&D to protect Israel from chemical and biological threats, and that work is top secret.

The IIBR website says: IIBR leads national efforts to counter any and all biological threats from intentional attacks as well as naturally emerging diseases.

In 1991, a subsidiary, Life Sciences Israel Research, was established together with IIBR to research, develop, produce and commercialize civilian products.

The IIBR vaccine was named BriLife in October 2020. Why?

The “Bri” is the first part of the Hebrew word for health, briyut; the “iL” means Israel and Life, for life.

More than a year ago, the Post listed three scientists as the “most influential Jews” for 2020: Tal Zaks, an Israeli who led the development of the Modern vaccine; Alexander Leonidovich Gintsburg, who led the development of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, and Shmuel Shapira, who led the development of BriLife, Israel’s vaccine.

The first two vaccines have been widely produced and injected. BriLife has suffered from bureaucratic delays. What’s going on? What’s behind the medical jargon and why is the Israeli BriLife vaccine so ingenious? How does the Israeli vaccine work, compared to Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine, and what are its main advantages?

STANDARD VACCINES work by injecting small pieces of the weakened germ that we want to prevent, such as the flu or measles. The body’s immune system prepares against it and is ready to defend itself when the real germ attacks.

The mRNA vaccine is different; it tells our body to make the “puncture protein” that COVID-19 uses to invade our cells and reproduce within them. And then when COVID-19 invades and tries to “fire” our cells to invade and reproduce, our immune system recognizes it and kills it by producing antibodies.

BriLife is different. And, as a non-expert, I think he’s brilliantly creative.

IIBR took a harmless virus, known as VSV, and genetically engineered it to produce the “puncture” protein from the COVID-19 spike on its outer surface. Through genetic engineering, proteins bind to the VSV virus to form coronavirus “crowns” that the body identifies as COVID-19. The body quickly produces antibodies against it.

When injected into humans, the Israeli vaccine does not cause disease. You cannot, because it is not COVID itself. But it stimulates the body’s immune system to attack and kill COVID-19 when it invades. It’s like providing photos of dangerous terrorists to border police, so they can recognize, intercept, and imprison them when they show up.

What are the main advantages of the Israeli vaccine over the Pfizer version?

Yossi Caraco, a senior physician at Hadassah Medical Center, notes that the incidence of side effects is much lower [for BriLife] and they are less severe than with Pfizer and Moderna. In addition, he says, the level of neutralizing antibodies produced by the injections is promising and even encouraging.

According to the Times of Israel, while the Pfizer vaccine has waning effectiveness after six months, prompting Israel to launch a booster campaign, IIBR data shows that BriLife, administered in a high dose, provides protection over the long term. term.

A study by researchers at Sheba Medical Center, published in a leading medical journal, shows that antibody levels in 4,800 subjects dropped rapidly after two doses of the Pfizer vaccine. In contrast, about 200 Israeli volunteers who received the highest dose of the BriLife vaccine were told that they did not need a third dose of the vaccine, as their protection remained high six months after receiving a second dose.

Why did Israeli government officials deliberately stop the progress of the IIBR vaccine?

I do not know. But I can guess. Netanyahu reached out to Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla and called him at 3 a.m. M. To take priority in purchasing millions of doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, at a time when many nations were competing to do the same. The exact cost and many details of the deal are still secret.

Had Israel announced plans to produce its own BriLife vaccine, Bourla might have been much less susceptible. Why help a competitor?

Shapira resigned as director of the IIBR in May. He has published a book in Hebrew, The Pandemic Circus; the title says it all about how you perceive the way the government handled the COVID-19 crisis and BriLife in particular. Reminder: Brilife was ready for clinical trials in August 2020, more than a year ago.

Who obtained the worldwide rights to develop, manufacture and market BriLife and why?

In July, according to Hoffman, the Defense Ministry granted an American-Israeli company NRx Pharmaceuticals exclusive global development, manufacturing and marketing rights for BriLife, after more than three months of negotiations and a year of bureaucratic delays. BriLife is now in the final phase of clinical trials III in Georgia and Ukraine.

NRx has a distinguished American CEO, Professor Jonathan Javitt, and board members include former Mossad director Tamir Pardo and former Teva International president Chaim Hurvitz. But in my opinion, producing and distributing BriLife around the world are too big shoes for start-up NRx, founded in 2014, which merged with a special-purpose acquirer in May, and is still mostly in the “clinical stage. “(ie no income).

Should Israel build a vaccine plant?

We have done it before. The IIBR developed and manufactured a smallpox vaccine to vaccinate 15,000 healthcare workers, police officers and soldiers between July and September 2002, after the 9/11 terrorist attack raised fears of bacteriological warfare. Used a different strain of vaccine than is used in the US, with fewer side effects.

Personally, I enjoy living in a country that acts like I’m Annie Oakley. But not really, we can’t do everything better than anyone else. We must place our bets carefully. BriLife is a really good bet.

Given the fact that COVID-19 can become endemic globally, or at least persistent, for years, and given that other vaccines appear less effective when new variants emerge, perhaps national security suggests that Israel should make its own vaccine. BriLife. That can be a good place to invest our money. It could become a profitable export and, like so many other Israeli innovations, it could also create great value for the world.

Were we too hasty in assigning all BriLife rights to NRx? In general, why does Israel keep selling their brains instead of using them to produce ingenious ideas at home and sell them abroad?

We have the ideal location for such a plant: Yeroham, the developing city of the Negev, with a population of 10,000. Yeroham Mayor Tal Ohana says there is a detailed plan to start up a vaccine factory in her city. She said she hopes IIBR can start manufacturing BriLife, after FDA approval. But Shapira is skeptical.

The proposed Defense budget for 2022 amounts to a whopping 58 billion NIS ($ 17.8 billion). A single F-35 jet fighter plane costs $ 110 million, and Israel has decided to buy 14 more. Shapira told Hoffman that the government invested just NIS 176 million ($ 55 million) in BriLife, a small fraction of what Pfizer, Moderna and Astra-Zeneca invested in their vaccines.

Israel could build a BriLife vaccine factory for less than the defense budget rounding error, or the cost of an F-35. It would strategically protect us much more than that single F-35.

The Israeli vaccine may well be the victim of sad grammar. For Brilife, “yes, we can” has become “well, yes, maybe we could have, but …”

And that is a sham.

Postscript: On August 30, the World Health Organization announced that it was tracking a “[COVID-19] variant of interest, known as Mu, which carries “key mutations … associated with increased transmissibility and reduced immune protection.” Mu represents 39% of all cases in Colombia and 13% in Ecuador, places where its prevalence “has constantly increased.”

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