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Race for Coronavirus Vaccine Runs Through Middle East

Clinical trials advancing in Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is a player in the global race for a coronavirus vaccine with countries stepping up their game recently.

Last week, both Israel and Saudi Arabia announced advancements in the goal of getting a candidate across the finish line.

Israel on Thursday announced that researchers from the government-run Israel Institute for Biological Research in Ness Ziona expect to begin human trials on their candidate in October.

Saudi Arabia on Saturday said that Phase III clinical trials will begin in Riyadh, Dammam and Mecca with 5,000 volunteers for a candidate developed by Chinese company CanSino Biologics.

“[The Israeli vaccine is] very promising. There were excellent results in the animal models that they used. There was a complete success. It was very effective. Very good vaccination probably,” Prof. Oren Tsimhoni, manager of the Infectious Diseases Unit at Kaplan Medical Center in Rehovot, told The Media Line.

According to The New York Times coronavirus tracker, there are more than 135 vaccines not yet in clinical trials, 18 vaccines in Phase I trials, 12 vaccines in Phase II trials and seven vaccines in Phase III trials.

The CanSino-developed vaccine, based on an adenovirus called Ad5, that is starting Phase III trials in Saudi Arabia, was approved for limited use for a year by the Chinese military on June 25.

“Chinese firms are proving to be key players in the development and deployment of health care technologies within Gulf Arab states like Saudi Arabia,” Robert Mogielnicki, a resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told The Media Line.

On July 16, Phase III trials for an inactivated virus vaccine developed by the China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm) began in Abu Dhabi. The UAE authorized the participation of up to 15,000 volunteers in the trials, which last Wednesday expanded outside of Abu Dhabi with the opening of a testing facility at the Al Qarain Health Centre in Sharjah.

Why is Israel waiting until October to start human trials?

It takes time to process the trial through the Health Ministry regulatory authorities, according to Dr. Gabi Barbash, director of the Bench to Bedside Program at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot.

Barbash told The Media Line that the COVID-19 project in Israel is still a worthwhile endeavor despite other candidates possibly gaining approval in late 2020 and early 2021, while Phase III testing for the Israeli vaccine is not expected to start until mid-2021.

“Its importance is in the context of the vaccine’s availability to Israelis in a world with high demand and increasing pressure on worldwide manufacturing,” Barbash said.

Chinese firms are proving to be key players in the development and deployment of health care technologies within Gulf Arab states like Saudi Arabia

US President Donald Trump said last Thursday that he is “optimistic” that a vaccine will be available by around Election Day on November 3. The first test in the US for a coronavirus vaccine was administered in March for one of the world’s leading candidates developed by US biotech company Moderna in collaboration with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Phase III trials started July 27 and Moderna expects completion of enrollment of 30,000 study subjects in September.

Another candidate from Israel at the pre-clinical stage is a poultry coronavirus vaccine being adapted for human use by scientists at Migal Galilee Research Institute who formed a startup called MigVax to further develop the vaccine, securing $12 million in funding led by Jerusalem-based investment platform OurCrowd.

David Zigdon, CEO (in blue) and the researcher staff at Migal Galilee Research Institute. (Courtsey Migal Galilee Research Institute)

Other MENA countries working on a coronavirus vaccine include Egypt and Turkey.

According to the World Health Organization’s “landscape of COVID-19 candidate vaccines,” four vaccine candidates are currently at the pre-clinical stage of development at Egypt’s National Research Centre.

In April, three Turkish universities teamed up to join the coronavirus vaccine race. The Middle East Technical University, Bilkent University and Hacettepe University, all based in the capital Ankara, are collaborating on developing a vaccine candidate with the support of Turkey’s Scientific and Technological Research Council. The candidate is currently at the pre-clinical stage, according to the WHO’s latest landscape document.

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