Itai Bloch, lead researcher in computational chemistry, drug discovery and cheminformatics at the MIGAL Galilee Research Institute in northern Israel's Kiryat Shmona, spoke to Middle East forum radio host Gregg Roman on March 11 about the COVID-19 coronavirus and MIGAL's progress in developing a human vaccine to stem the pandemic. Bloch's interview with MEF Radio was the final one granted by the non-profit research institute to the public until further notice.
MIGAL's development of a COVID-19 vaccine builds off four years of research, funded by Israel's Ministry of Science & Technology and Ministry of Agriculture, developing a vaccine against an avian coronavirus, the Infectious Bronchitis Virus (IBV), for the poultry industry. Technology used by MIGAL to update this vaccine as different strains of IVB evolve is being applied in a "larger jump" to adapt it into a vaccine against the human coronavirus known as COVID-19, said Bloch.
Under the leadership of Jacob Pitcovski, head of the Virology and Vaccine Development laboratory at MIGAL, this effort began shortly after Chinese scientists sequenced the COVID-19 genome and shared it with the rest of the world a few weeks into their outbreak. This will be an oral vaccine, which will put "less ... [of] a burden on medical teams ... to administer it."
Bloch said MIGAL will have a vaccine ready within weeks and hopes to complete its own internal testing in about 90 days, after which the institute will work with an outside partner to conduct clinical trials. "We are in contact with several different governments and health authorities around the world, with companies who are willing to help" conduct clinical trials. The institute is currently exploring which prospective partners will "be of the greatest help to advance these programs as soon as possible."
"We still don't know how fast this virus can mutate."
In the meantime, Bloch stressed the importance of the Israeli government's far-reaching efforts to isolate the virus, such as requiring everyone entering the country to self-quarantine for 14 days. The MERS coronavirus (MERS-CoV) that emerged in 2012, he noted, was effectively combatted through isolation without a vaccine. Although COVID-19 appears to have a lower mortality rate – "approximately two point something" – it is highly contagious and "exact numbers" are not known. Moreover, he added, "we still don't know how fast this virus can mutate and change into perhaps [an] even more dangerous or more infectious form. That's the concern."
Asked to explain why Israel's biotech industry is so advanced for such a small country, Bloch drew attention to the solidarity that exists among Israeli scientists. "We share knowledge, we share ideas ... [In] this process ... of national brainstorming .... anyone you speak with can [put you in] contact with the person you are looking for [or] with the information you are missing."
Marilyn Stern is the producer of Middle East Forum Radio.