Israeli scientists and universities are among those in the hunt for a vaccine for the new coronavirus as the World Health Organisation said 70 trials were now ongoing.
A vaccine could take 18 months to test then mass produce, but some human trials are already underway, and Israeli teams are at the cutting edge of research alongside those from China, the UK and the US.
Among the 60+ trials still in the pre-clinical phase was one at a laboratory at the state-funded MIGAL Research Institute in Kiryat Shmona in the upper Galilee, where a team was searching for answers based on work on Infectious Bronchitis Virus (IBV).
Last month scientists there said they had been working on a customisable oral vaccine for four years so had a head-start on COVID-19, adding that they hoped their vaccine would “turn this disease into a mild cold”.
Meanwhile at Technion in Haifa a team led by Dr Avi Schroeder said they were turning their attentions towards a COVID-19 vaccine based on immunity-boosting research they conducted from studying a virus found in farmed shrimp.
“Viruses infect us by multiplying inside our cells and to do this the virus produces proteins,” he said, describing a process called RNA interference. “We stop the production of these proteins inside the body.”
British teams are working on a potential vaccine using an approved treatment for leukaemia, but a Chinese firm and two American companies have already progressed to testing on humans.
Vaccines arm the immune system with ‘a memory’ of harmful invaders. Medics use vaccines to stimulate the body’s immune response, which produces antibodies. This then lets the body recognise and attack the virus before it takes a hold.
Two months ago Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the Israel Institute for Biological Research (IIBR) – the country’s bio-chemical defence laboratory, in Ness Ziona – to focus its efforts on finding a COVID-19 vaccine.
Such is the determination to succeed, the cabinet relaxed the lab’s usual top-secret access clearance in order for the military scientists to collaborate with civilian teams.
Last week Netanyahu’s office said IIBR director Shmuel Shapira had reported “significant progress” in designing a vaccine prototype, with testing on rodents understood to be already underway.
IIBR chief innovation officer Eran Zahavy has said the lab has three teams trying to develop a vaccine, but warned that it was getting “very crowded and very busy and very dangerous so it has to be very slow and very cautious”.
Zahavy said Israel did not just want to detect neutralising antibodies in the animals but “to see them getting sick and [then] getting better by this vaccine,” adding that IIBR had a “unique animal” for such tests.
Asked to explain, he said it was “a very unique technology to detect animals – even if they are not really sick – to follow them and see their interaction with the disease,” but did not disclose what the animal or technology was.