Calling Netanyahu’s Coronavirus Bluff: Why Israel Isn’t Likely to Develop a Vaccine Anytime Soon

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's announcement on Sunday that he had ordered the Health Ministry and Israel Institute for Biological Research (IIBR) to establish a "vaccine project" against the coronavirus means, at best, that Netanyahu has gotten carried away. At worst, it is another of his empty populist declarations.

"If we work fast enough, with appropriate budgeting and the talented people we have, Israel could be ahead of the world," Netanyahu said.

– netanyahu tweet

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a large-scale discussion this morning, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, including ministers, ministry director generals and all relevant staff officials on national preparations to deal with the #coronavirus.

— PM of Israel (@IsraeliPM) February 2, 2020

It's true that the scientists at the Institute for Biological research – chemists, biologists, microbiologists, engineers and technicians – are at the forefront of their fields. But the institute is a small organization, with about 300 employees and a limited budget, certainly compared to similar institutes in the West, Russia and China.

The institute does not specialize in research and development of pharmaceuticals, antibodies or vaccines for the Israeli population, let alone the rest of the world. Its official objective is development of protective measures against biological and chemical weapons.

Foreign publications have claimed that the institute is involved in developing biological and chemical weapons, or at least used to be.

In 1992, The New York Times reported that an El Al transport plane that crashed in Amsterdam was carrying 189 liters of dimethyl methylphosphonate (DMMP), a chemical used in the production of Sarin nerve gas, which was designated for the Biological Institute.

On at least two occasions, toxins were found to have been used in assassinations attributed to the Mossad. In 1997, after the failed assassination attempt against Khaled Mashal, Israel admitted to the operation and even saved the life of the Hamas political bureau chief by sending an antidote that was originally meant for the Israeli operatives if they accidentally came into contact with the poison. In 2010, a leading Hamas official who was engaged in smuggling weapons from Iran to the Gaza Strip, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, was assassinated by means of poison in a hotel in Dubai.