Even as Israel sprints to inoculate millions of citizens against COVID-19, volunteers are flocking to help researchers conduct Phase II clinical trials of a homegrown version of the vaccine.
Some two million Israelis – roughly 20% of the population – have already received Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines.
The country is on track to inoculate most of its population by the end of March if all goes as planned, but it continues its quest for a locally developed shot.
In fact, despite the availability of tried and tested vaccines, hundreds of volunteers have signed up to take part in the BriLife vaccine trials, which are ongoing at Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer and Hadassah-University Medical Center.
“I’m happy to be part of it,” Doron, a volunteer, told The Media Line as he prepared to receive the jab. “I’m happy to volunteer, especially if it’s coming from Israel.”
It’s important for me that this Israeli research succeeds and for Israel to have its own vaccine. This is why I decided to volunteer
Kiryat Ono resident Meir, 73, noted that he could have already received Pfizer’s vaccine but chose to participate in the BriLife clinical trials instead.
“It’s important for me that this Israeli research succeeds and for Israel to have its own vaccine,” he told The Media Line. “This is why I decided to volunteer.”
The Ness Ziona-based Israel Institute for Biological Research (IIBR), which operates under the Defense Ministry, developed the BriLife vaccine. Unlike Pfizer and Moderna, the IIBR vaccine uses recombinant vesicular stomatitis virus, an animal virus that does not cause disease in humans and which is similar to the model of a separate vaccine that has already proven to be successful against the deadly Ebola virus.
Dr. OrTal Efrat, of Sheba Medical’s clinical research trials department, is overseeing the clinical trials together with Dr. Eytan Ben Ami. Efrat told The Media Line that roughly 1,000 volunteers would be taking part in Phase II. Although some would only be receiving a placebo instead of an actual vaccine there appeared to be no shortage of willing participants.
“Hopefully we will finish this phase by the end of January,” Efrat said.
Outside of Sheba Medical Center, Israel’s vaccine frenzy continued unabated as teachers and people 50+ became eligible to get vaccinated this week.
Many streamed into a new vaccination clinic in Jerusalem that is under the purview of Kupat Holim Meuhedet – Israel’s third-largest health insurance and medical care provider.
“We can vaccinate hundreds of people in this center each day and I believe even reach up to 2,000 people per day,” Jerusalem mayor Moshe Lion said to The Media Line as he toured the site.
“We have vaccinated 150,000 people in Jerusalem and more than 50% of those are over the age of 60,” Lion continued. “Firstly, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ensured that we would receive large quantities of vaccines and secondly, we also have an excellent [medical] infrastructure in place to vaccinate the public.”
Israel is the world leader in vaccinations per capita. Some media outlets reported that the country paid above market price in order for Pfizer and Moderna to ensure amply supply. Netanyahu also recently revealed that Israel would be sharing data with both pharmaceutical giants in order to help them continue with their R&D on not only COVID-19, but other medical treatments as well.
Nevertheless, experts say that the rapid rollout is in great part thanks to the country’s four health maintenance organizations (HMOs).
“What makes Israel really unique is its use of community-based health care,” Dr. Menahem Bitan, deputy chief medical officer of Meuhedet Health Services, affirmed to The Media Line.
“The HMOs here not only provide health insurance but also medical treatment,” he said. “On top of this, Israel’s publicly mandated health care system – where all medical files are digitized – dates back to 1995. This is the only country in the world where citizens’ medical files were completely digitized 25 years ago.”
As the vaccination drive races forward, some might wonder if an Israeli COVID-19 vaccine is even necessary at this point, however researchers at Sheba Medical Center march on. They argue that it is crucial for Israel to have its own homegrown shot and hope to make the BriLife vaccine available to the public by summer.
“We still need this vaccine because we don’t know what the future holds,” Dr. Efrat stressed. We don’t know if Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccines will work long-term or if some people won’t be able to get their vaccines due to allergies or other medical reasons. This vaccine is also a Zionist project: We believe in and are proud to make a vaccine that was developed in Israel.”