Research groups across the world are using a variety of approaches to formulating vaccines that could protect people from coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19).
Big money and urgent demand are accelerating the normally lengthy process of vaccine development (see our companion story, “In the race for a coronavirus vaccine, first doesn’t mean best,” to read what two Israeli experts have to say about this).
Vaccine candidates from the US, UK, China, Japan and Germany are on the fast track, and Israel has at least six projects on the go. This international effort may lead to multiple products.
“We expect more than one could make it to market,” says Ronald Ellis, an Israel-based consultant to the industry and editor in chief of Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics.
Let’s see what vaccine candidates are being cooked up in Israeli labs.
Over the past four years, Migal developed a vaccine against a coronavirus strain affecting chickens. Safety and effectiveness were proven in animal trials at Israel’s Veterinary institute.
MigVax is translating methods from the poultry vaccine program to develop an oral human vaccine against Covid-19.
This is a “sub-unit” vaccine, containing pieces of coronavirus protein (not live or dead virus) delivered orally to the immune system via a bacterial protein to stimulate antibodies and immune cells against coronavirus in mucosa, blood and cells.
“The experiments we have carried out so far show that because the vaccine does not include the virus itself, it will be safe to use in immune-suppressed recipients, and has fewer chances of side effects,” said David Zigdon, CEO of the Migal Galilee Research Institute and interim CEO of MigVax.
Zigdon said the material could be ready for clinical trials within a few months.
If the trials are successful, MigVax will partner with a GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) facility to produce the vaccine in mass quantities quickly and at low cost using bacterial fermentation.
On April 22, Jerusalem-based OurCrowd venture investment platform announced a $12 million funding round in MigVax.
The Israel Institute of Biological Research, a Defense Ministry laboratory in Ness Ziona, has reportedly completed successful Covid-19 vaccine trials on rodents.
The vaccine candidate will now be tested on other animals for safety and efficacy and then, if successful, would be tested in humans, according to Israeli media.
The IIBR did not release any official statement about its vaccine progress.
However, Chief Innovation Coordinator Eran Zehavy previously said the institute is also developing an antibody-based treatment for Covid-19 using plasma from recovered patients. He said this treatment is expected to take less time to develop than the vaccine.
Earlier this month, the IIBR isolated a key coronavirus antibody that successfully neutralized aggressive coronavirus in lab tests. Since then, the institute filed patent applications for eight separate coronavirus antibodies it has isolated.
TransAlgae in Rehovot has opened a $5 million investment round to support development of an oral sub-unit coronavirus vaccine in pill form.
The essence of this vaccine candidate is an edible delivery vehicle based on engineered algae.
Bioencapsulated inside the algae, a specific coronavirus protein molecule travels intact through the digestive system to stimulate its target, the immune system.
Eyal Ronen, VP for business development, says TransAlgae invested over $25 million over the past 11 years in developing this technology for animal and fish vaccines as well as crop insecticides.
“We are not a pharma company and were not interested in going into human health at this moment. But our shareholders were asking us, why not use this for human beings? We took the challenge,” says Ronen.
“Our algae for this project are genetically modified so they can grow in a fermenter, like yeast, for low-cost mass production. This increases production rate 30-fold over wild algae. And we can control all the inputs in an accurate way for consistency,” says Ronen.
With mouse trials to begin in a few months, TransAlgae is seeking collaborations and strategic partnerships with American companies to advance development.
University vaccine research
Israel’s academic labs are also contributing to Covid-19 vaccine research. The Israeli Council for Higher Education announced a $4 million KillCorona grant fund to support research on preventing, diagnosing and treating Covid-19.
Tel Aviv University Prof. Jonathan Gershoni recently received a US patent on a coronavirus vaccine design that his lab spent 15 years developing.
TAU technology-transfer company Ramot signed a research and license agreement with Swiss biopharmaceutical company Neovii to develop a Covid-19 vaccine based on Gershoni’s design.
His lab isolates and reconstructs the receptor binding motif (RBM), a critical structure of the coronavirus “spike” protein that enables the virus to infect a target cell.
“The moment the genome of the new virus was published in early January 2020, we began the process of reconstituting the RBM of SARS CoV2, the virus that causes Covid-19,” Gershoni said.
“The virus takes far-reaching measures to hide its RBM from the human immune system, but the best way to ‘win the war’ is to develop a vaccine that specifically targets the virus’s RBM.”
Bar-Ilan University Faculty of Medicine scientists from Moshe Dessau’s Structural Biology of Infectious Diseases Lab are developing a system of harmless viruses, containing components such as the coronavirus envelope protein, to test their response to substances including vaccine candidates.
Working in collaboration with a Swedish pharmaceutical company, Dessau’s lab aims to contribute valuable information for vaccine development and for testing drugs that may inhibit the virus.
Technion-Israel Institute of Technology researcher Avi Schroeder, head of the Targeted Drug Delivery and Personalized Medicine Group, is developing a Covid-19 vaccine based on his novel immune-boosting food additive that protects farmed shrimp from viral infection.
“Viruses infect us by multiplying inside our cells and to do this the virus produces proteins,” Schroeder says, describing a process called RNA interference. “We stop the production of these proteins inside the body.”