The coronavirus outbreak continues to spread across the globe. There have been more than 81,000 cases and nearly 3,000 deaths. With six continents infected, experts are predicting that it’s a matter of “when” not “if” major population centers will be impacted. Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch said he believes that 40 to 70 percent of people around the world will be infected with the virus.
All of which makes today’s announcement particularly encouraging. The Migal Research Institute, based in northern Israel, held a press conference to reveal that they have developed a coronavirus vaccine. “It’s totally game-changing,” Migal CEO David Zigdon told From The Grapevine when we reached him by phone.
Migal, located in Kiryat Shmona near Israel’s Hula Valley, mostly focuses its research on agriculture and animals. And it was that specialty which gave it a leg up in the race to find this new vaccine. For the past four years, they have been working on developing a vaccine for coronavirus in chickens. When the human outbreak of the disease accelerated a few months ago, they soon realized there was only a few genetic tweaks needed to have the poultry version work in humans as well. “It was an issue of timing that we were already working on this project. We were here at the right time.”
Zigdon told us that Migal will now repeat the pre-clinical trial. “Hopefully, in a few months we’ll have the final version that we can go to humans.” The vaccine will then have to go through several regulatory approvals which might be fast-tracked because of the outbreak. Migal – with 300 employees, including 100 with Ph.D.s – is a research institute and will not manufacture the vaccine for consumers. They are already in discussions with pharmaceutical companies and other health organizations to partner on mass producing it.
Migal is not alone in this race to find a cure. Other groups are also frantically working on a vaccine. U.S.-based Gilead Sciences, for example, announced this week that it is launching two Phase III clinical trials for a drug to treat covid-19, as this particular strain of the coronavirus is known.
Practically speaking, however, many experts suggest we are still a ways off from having a coronavirus vaccine that’s as readily available as one for the flu. Dr. Ran Nir-Paz, an infectious disease specialist at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, recently traveled to Japan to follow up on Israeli covid-19 patients who had contracted the coronavirus while aboard the Princess Diamond cruise ship. He has since returned to Israel and is himself in quarantine for two weeks. Asked about today’s announcement, he is cautiously optimistic. “At this current stage, it seems that no medication is at this time ready to be used in what seems to be a pandemic outbreak,” Nir-Paz said. “Hopefully a few of these potential treatments will be able to be used in time. But it is still too early.”
As for the new vaccine, Zigdon said it’s particularly meaningful for the scientists at Migal. “We’re a research institute that gets money from the government and the taxes of the people. So when we can return something to the people, it’s really, really exciting.” He added: “I’m very happy that from Israel we can bring such a new vaccine to this epidemic disease. Hopefully, it will succeed. And hopefully, no one will use it because the disease will pass. This would be the best thing.”