Big breakthrough: Israeli scientists develop antibody that can neutralize coronavirus

coronavirus vaccine
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Israel's Defence Minister Naftali Bennett has claimed that his country's scientists have made a "significant breakthrough" in the treatment of COVID-19 by isolating a key antibody at Israel's primary defense biological research laboratory.

According to a report in the Jerusalem Post, Bennett said on Monday, May 4 that a team of Israeli scientists at the Israel Institute for Biological Research (IIBR) have developed a "monoclonal neutralizing antibody" which can neutralize the disease-causing coronavirus inside the carrier's body itself.

A statement issued by Bennett's office said he visited the IIBR laboratory, which is a secretive unit that works under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Office in the city of Ness Ziona, where he was shown the "antibody that attacks the virus in a monoclonal way and can neutralize it within the bodies of those ill".

"I am proud of the institute staff for this terrific breakthrough.. Their creativity and the Jewish mind brought about this amazing achievement," Bennett said in the statement.

The antibody is "monoclonal," meaning that it was derived or cloned from a single recovered cell, and therefore it is much easier to create and use, as opposed to "polyclonal" antibodies which are derived from multiple cells. In other words, monoclonal antibodies are potentially be more efficacious in yielding a treatment.

Vaccine being patented for mass-production

The institute is in the process of patenting the potential coronavirus antibody, after which it will approach international companies to mass-produce the antibody for commercial sale, the report quoted IIBR Director Shmuel Shapira as saying.

The statement did not provide any details on whether the new "breakthrough monoclonal antibody" presented to Bennett was related to the progress that was reported by IIBR in late March.

The Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported in March that scientists at the institute had made a significant breakthrough in understanding the biological working and qualities of the coronavirus, including better diagnostic capability, production of antibodies for those who are infected by the virus and development of a potential vaccine. The Israeli Defence Ministry had refuted the reports back then saying that "if and when there will be something to report, it will be done in an orderly fashion."

Human trials

The latest statement from the Defence Minister's office also does not specify whether human trials of the vaccine were conducted. However, most potential vaccines are currently in human trials, though Shapira did not clarify whether the vaccine has been tested for safety or efficiency on humans.

The usual process of development of such a vaccine requires a lengthy process of pre-clinical trials on animals, followed by clinical trials. During this period, researchers get a better understanding of how the vaccine affects different populations as well as the side effects and other characteristics of the vaccine.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had on May 4 reportedly pledged $60 million at an international donors conference for a joint fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

"Like all countries, Israel is now trying to find the right balance between protecting the health of our citizens by preventing another spike in infections, and enabling the reopening of our economy, but, ultimately, to ensure both the public health and national prosperity, we must all work together on improving diagnostics, accelerating therapies and ultimately developing a vaccine," Netanyahu said in a prerecorded message.

"I am confident that Israel's leading research institutions, its world renowned scientists and our unique culture of innovation can enable us to play an important role in advancing solutions on all three fronts," he added.

"We hope to work with other countries to leverage our unique capabilities to find solutions for the benefit of all."

More than 100 research groups working on possible vaccines

Nearly 100 research groups around the world are trying to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus, with almost a dozen of them currently in early stages of human trials or poised to start. But it's still too early to predict which vaccine will work safely.

The US government's top medical expert Dr. Anthony Fauci has cautioned that even if everything goes perfectly well, the development of a vaccine won't happen until at least the next 12 to 18 months and if it does, it will set a record for speed.

'Israel will be ahead in the world'

Netanyahu had reportedly instructed the IIBR and the Israeli Health Ministry to start the development of a vaccine for the coronavirus and to establish vaccine factory in early February, well before the virus reached Israel.

"It is possible that even on this issue, if we work fast enough, with an appropriate budget and the talented people that we have, that Israel will be ahead of the world," Netanyahu said at the time.

Israel reportedly plans to open the country's first vaccine factory in the small southern town of Yeruham, in partnership with the IIBR and one of the two prospective pharma companies that will produce the vaccines, according to a spokesperson for the Yeruham local council.

The IIBR, which works directly under the office of the Israeli Prime Minister, has not released any further information about the protein which the institute has identified that kills the SARS-CoV-2 virus - except that it is monoclonal. The institute will be publishing a paper about the findings very soon.

Another Israeli research team called 'MigVax' has also said that it is close to completing the first phase of development of its coronavirus vaccine.

Coronavirus in Israel

Israel was one of the first countries in the world to close its borders and impose stringent restrictions on internal movement to curb the domestic spread of the novel coronavirus when the pandemic began in early March. The Middle Eastern country has so far reported 16,268 cases of infection and 237 deaths as of May 5.

US to begin using remdesivir

The US is also planning to begin treating some of the most severely ill COVID-19 patients with remdesivir an antiviral medicine developed by American biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences. Remdesivir is also being touted as a potential vaccine for COVID-19. However, there is very little data on it and more trials are needed as the vaccine has only been tested on a handful of humans as per accounts from the US where it has been permitted by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The potential vaccine recently also received "fast-track" approval for use in the US and the US government has granted permission to several hospitals to use remdesivir to treat COVID-19 patients.

"We are now firmly focused on getting this medicine to the most urgent patients," Gilead Sciences CEO Daniel O'Day told CBS News on Sunday, May 3.

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