“I have ordered the Biological Institute to act as quickly as possible to produce a vaccine against the virus and establish a vaccine plant in Israel.” That’s what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed last week, eliciting not a little mockery. The entire world is in a race to develop a coronavirus vaccine, so ordering it to go into production is a little odd.
Netanyahu’s order came after he met with Prof. Shmuel Shapira, the head of the Israel Institute for Biological Research, who said the institute was capable of handling the task.
As Chaim Levinson reported in Haaretz over the weekend, the prime minister not only took Shapira’s promises seriously but ordered the project to be budgeted, thereby saving the institute’s vaccine unit from being shuttered as had been planned.
In the meantime, Israel has acquired samples of the coronavirus, now known as COVID-19, from the World Health Organization, to help develop a vaccine. Institute staffers and perhaps other researchers will thus join the global effort, which WHO estimates should take less than a year.
As to the second part of Netanyahu’s promise, to set up a manufacturing facility in Israel will have no impact on the coronavirus threat. Building a facility is a complicated process that requires very specific expertise. It is also risky, both from a technological and financial perspective.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s vow is not entirely divorced from reality. Over the last few years, the Health Ministry and others in the government have been doing the groundwork needed to develop a vaccine plant and have even taken the first concrete measures to advance it.
The British company GSK, one of the few players in the global vaccines industry, has been tapped to help with the project, perhaps in cooperation with a second company. The Negev town of Yeruham has been chosen as the site.