We'll start the weekly column with the Israeli vaccine for COVID-19. Believe it or not, after the oversights of the COVID-19 checks and the failed epidemiological examinations, the vaccine, which is ready for human testing and may be a savior, is about to be delayed by red tape in a Health Ministry committee. Not a delay of two days or two weeks, but of months. Unimaginable? These are the details.
The Israeli vaccine was developed at the Israel Institute for Biological Research (IIBR) in Nes Tziyona. The prime minister has already boasted several times, with more than a hint, of a breakthrough achieved at the institute in the global race to develop a vaccine for COVID-19.
And there is a reason: the institute in Nes Tziyona, which is subordinate to both the Prime Minister's Office and the Defense Ministry, is one of the leading entities in the world in developing a vaccine against the virus, and even filed a patent for its development last month. But while other countries in the world approved clinical tests with unprecedented speed, with the participation of volunteers, the Israeli Health Ministry, which is responsible for approving tests, has its own pace that is shockingly slow. The committee made up mostly of volunteers that is supposed to approve the tests has still not found the time to convene.
The IIBR, which developed the vaccine and registered it as a patent, is supposed to provide an answer for chemical and biological threats against Israel, both those from enemy countries and those from nature like the coronavirus epidemic. Luckily, a few years ago, due to a wave of reports around the world that there was expected to be an epidemic at an unknown time in the future, in Ness Tziyona they started to prepare for the development of a vaccine for the virus that could be used for the "corona family" in general. It is not a vaccine based on weakening a certain virus that is injected into the body in order to teach the body to create antibodies against it, as in the past, but rather a vaccine in technology based on a virus that doesn't cause a sickness, but causes the body "to see" it as COVID-19 using methods of genetic engineering. In response, the body creates antibodies that prevent the "thorns" of the real coronavirus to connect to the human cells. Since the "prototype" of the vaccine for the corona family already existed thanks to the early preparations, it was only necessary to complete development of the vaccine according to the unique characteristics of the new COVID-19 virus on the basis of its genetic sequence.
After the prime minister instructed the IIBR to make development of the vaccine its top priority, and even allocated special budgets, the institute started to work around the clock. It carried out many tests on pigs, rabbits, hamsters, mice and other species. Even ladybugs. All of the tests were declared a success, meaning that the likelihood of the success of the vaccine among humans is now very high, almost 100 percent, which enables the transition to the "real thing": the first clinical testing on humans that will be based on several dozen volunteers. According to the procedure, the first test focuses on safety, along with an initial check of the effectiveness of the vaccine, so it will be possible to move on to the "third stage" – final testing of thousands of volunteers.
In the entire world it is clear that only an effective vaccine can return the world to normal, and enable the overcoming of the coronavirus epidemic. That is the reason why leading countries in terms of development of a vaccine, led by Britain, the US, China and Germany, introduced the fastest possible tracks for carrying out the tests.
In Britain, it was reported this week on the success of the first clinical tests of a vaccine developed by staff from Oxford with the cooperation of the AstraZeneca pharmaceutical company, and on the immediate transition to stage three, the mass testing. If the Oxford vaccine succeeds, the British may have an effective vaccine in their hands by this October. It is, without a doubt, the leading vaccine today in the global race. In the US, the Moderna company, developing a vaccine using the method called RNA (and its chances of success are considered much lower), received special authorization from the Food and Drug Administration to completely skip the stage of testing on animals, and to immediately start testing on humans. There too they have already transitioned to stage 3. In China and Germany they are also preparing clinical tests to check the effectiveness of vaccines. The Health Ministry in Israel took action to acquire the option of the vaccine from the two leaders in the race, Oxford and Moderna, but if even if the option is realized, global demand will be enormous and the amount of tests that will reach Israel by the middle of 2021 will only be enough for a small percentage of the population.
If development of the Israeli vaccine had advanced at the highest pace (assuming that it succeeded), the vaccine could have been ready at the beginning of 2021 and enabled the vaccination of the entire population by the spring of next year, whether vaccines arrived from abroad or not. But that didn't happen.
It has become clear that like other issues dealing with the epidemic, the Health Ministry did not fully internalize the emergency situation, even in terms of the urgency of the tests required for development of vaccines. The head of the committee that is supposed to authorize the clinical tests in Nes Tziyona is the head of the ministry's pharmaceutical division, Ofra Axelrod, but she did not succeed in convening the members of the committee for initial deliberations on approving the testing before July, and the committee requested time to study the material, at least until the middle of October. That is at least a month and a half later than the date at which the actual clinical tests could have been started if the committee had convened in emergency session.
Having no other choice, the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, was invited to the biological research institute for a visit that took place this week in order to consider the possibility of transferring the vaccine to the authorization of the FDA instead of the Israeli Health Ministry. The matter will be considered, even though the FDA is extremely busy with tests that are already being held there.
The Israeli delay in clinical testing for a vaccine is unimaginable. Although like any medical test there is a certain health risk from the clinical tests that are supposed to take place at Nes Tziyona, there is a several times bigger health risk to the public each day that the epidemic continues in Israel, and that is even before we talk about the enormous damage to the economy each day of restricted activity.
I asked the Health Ministry spokesman about these matters, and this is what he replied: "The Health Ministry is working night and day to promote the topic of developing vaccines in Israel for the benefit of the residents of the country. Also, the ministry is endeavoring to bring vaccines from additional companies overseas. Due to the confidentiality of information and the sensitivity of the topic, the ministry cannot detail these issues."
2. The alert. News of mysterious explosions around Iran, along with the announcement of Hezbollah that one of its fighters was killed in this week in an Israeli bombing in Syrian territory (the target, according to reports, was Iranian, but Hezbollah members did not say that), raise the likelihood of an attack on Israel by Iran or Hezbollah.
There was a considerable likelihood even before this week, and now it is even greater. There are two reasons: Iran has been seeking for some time a way to retaliate against Israel for the attacks on Iranian targets in Syria, and perhaps also for the bombings in Iran, even though there was no claim of responsibility for them (including the uranium processing facility in Natanz, a month ago). Tensions are growing, and the Iranians might even carry out an attack on Israel's home front and not only by means of a cyberattack on water infrastructure facilities, like the one that luckily failed when they tried to carry it out in April.
As far as Hezbollah, unfortunately, the matters are clearer. When the organization doesn't ignore a strike against its members but rather admits it openly, it generally carries out a retaliation or at least attempts an attack on the border between Israel and Lebanon. Therefore, Israel must maintain a high level of preparedness these days.
3. In the meantime, in the field: The IDF's Home Front Command finally started to work. Not following the instructions of the government, but because of cries for help by some mayors (at this stage). And what could be more understandable than that? Without any connection to the unnecessary question of honor, namely who is the "commander" of the corona crisis, the Home Front Command is more prepared than any other entity in Israel to support the home front. For that reason, billions of shekels are invested in it. The command knows how to make contact with citizens in countless languages, not just Hebrew, Russian and Amharic. When it was required in the past to distribute gas masks to the population, for example, it knew how to set up distribution centers throughout the country, within a few days.
One of the scenarios that the Home Front Command is always prepared for is a biological attack. If this happens, its members are supposed to spread out in the field, identify affected areas, and then assist the population and provide treatment. The "natural" coronavirus is not exactly like a biological attack but both scenarios have similar characteristics. One way or another, it is good that the Home Front Command (backed by Defense Minister Gantz and IDF Chief of Staff Kochavi) did not wait any more for the empty deliberations over the division of authority for dealing with the crisis, and went out into the field starting from this week. If more mayors call on the command, it will assist them too.