Israel has the know-how to develop and mass
produce a safe vaccine against H1N1 and other viruses, but such a
national project would require major investment in infrastructure and
personnel, plus at least three years of preparation, according to a
leading Jerusalem virologist.
Prof. Amos Panet of the Hebrew
University-Hadassah Medical School told The Jerusalem Post
Sunday that such a project would not be economically viable unless
Israel were able to market such a vaccine around the world.
Making vaccines, especially those against the flu, is
increasingly unprofitable, and many international pharmaceutical
companies have opted out for this reason. Only half a dozen of them
still produce vaccines.
Infrastructure would have to be built, said Panet.
"I was in China, and they work incredibly well
and in an organized manner. They could produce the infrastructure for
mass production of vaccine in three years. But when I remember how
slowly and badly we have been building Jerusalem's light railway, I
wonder whether we could do it as well as the Chinese," he said.
"The fact that there is no vaccine industry here is a major
failure. The government doesn't think in the long term. They put out
fires. Such an industry could begin as a startup using the high-level
scientists that we do have - but without the means to initiate such a
startup, such an industry will not exist."
It is not difficult to produce a flu vaccine,
even against H1N1, he continued, as "the World Health Organization
issued a warning in May and supplied virus samples to companies that
wanted to work on it. The Teva pharmaceutical company used to have a
company named Mabat that produced veterinary vaccines and drugs, but it
sold it to another company, which is small."
There were reports on the Knesset Channel Sunday that the
half-secret Ness Ziona Biological Research Institute was "working on
H1N1 virus," but it is likely that even if the institute is working on
it, staffers are only producing small amounts on an experimental basis.
The problem is that Israel currently lacks the infrastructure
for mass production of a vaccine - as well as the fertilized chicken
eggs to grow it in. Nearly all eggs sold in Israel are unfertilized
eggs, said Panet.
Vaccine must be produced in fertilized eggs, which result from
the fertilization of hens by roosters before the eggs are laid. Enough
roosters would have to be found to "volunteer" for this job. In
addition, fertilized eggs are prone to infection with other viruses.
An alternative is growing vaccine in chicken cells, but it is
not simple, and few companies in the world use cells to produce
vaccines, Panet said.
Safety of new vaccines has always been a problem. In 1977,
Americans got a vaccine against swine flu after 100 million doses were
"Tens of millions of people were vaccinated, and some people
died as a result, while others suffered side effects. Looking back, it
seems to be a shame that they vaccinated so many," said Panet.
Today, he continued, "we have better means to check safety in
the lab, on a molecular basis, on rodents and even on primates
[monkeys]. I presume [the] H1N1 [vaccine] will be safe, but it is hard
to know whether it will be efficacious and protect people from the
Recently, Deputy Health Minister Ya'acov Litzman said he wanted
to look into the possibility of Israeli producing H1N1 vaccine for the
local population instead of leaving the country dependent on foreign
Panet said that even if Israel managed to purchase enough
vaccine eventually to inject the population, the vaccine would not be
more effective than ordinary seasonal flu vaccine, which protects only
about 80 percent of those vaccinated.
In any case, the medical school virologist said he was not sure
how many Israelis would be willing to roll up their sleeves to get
vaccinated with a new product.
"They probably would prefer to wait until numerous people got it and then see if there were complications," he said.
He recalled that a few years ago, after two elderly people with
chronic diseases died after getting vaccinated against seasonal flu,
although there was no proven connection to it, the rate of vaccination
dropped so low that then-health minister Ya'acov Ben-Yizri publicly got
his shot during the evening TV news - and even this did not increase
the vaccination rates very much.
"Not all Israelis will agree to be vaccinated. I wouldn't
recommend buying enough doses to cover everybody," Panet said. "We need
stock for those at high risk - pregnant women, people with chronic
illness and weak immune systems - but not all.
"The horrible year of 1918, when many millions of people died
of Spanish flu when there was no vaccine, always sticks in our mind, so
we prepare for the worst-case scenario. But who would be affected and
how many is the great unknown."
Panet added that scientists cannot yet explain why H1N1 is
hitting younger people and why it is thriving in the hot summer months,
unlike seasonal flu, which is most dangerous in the winter, since flu
virus is sensitive to heat.
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