Israel’s Migal Institute in the Lead to Develop COVID-19 Vaccine

Thursday, June 11, 2020 4:33 PM

What does developing a COVID-19 vaccine have to do with KKL-JNF? Dr. Doron Markel, Chief Scientist at KKL-JNF, explains.

With funding from KKL-JNF’s ‘Strengthen the North’ program, the Migal Research Institute recently purchased specialized equipment to develop the vaccine. Migal’s previous success in developing an effective vaccine for coronavirus (IVB) in chickens gives it a significant head start.
The global corona (COVID-19) virus pandemic has infected millions of people worldwide, leading to the deaths of over 400,000 people over a four-month period. As a result, the virus has caused global economic and social disruptions on a level unprecedented since the Great Depression. The rapid infection rate and comprehensive nation-wide lockdowns are stretching healthcare systems and economies worldwide to breaking point.  It is therefore unsurprising that research institutes and laboratories worldwide are racing to find an effective COVID-19 vaccine, which would free the world from lockdowns (including the anticipated “second wave”) and would allow the resumption of economic activity.
One Israeli team currently working on developing a COVID-19 vaccine is the Migal Research Institute, located in Kiryat Shemona and owned by the Galilee Development Company. Migal is currently a front-runner in the global race to develop a vaccine, thanks to its work over the past four years to develop a vaccine against the avian coronavirus (IVB) in chickens. The vaccine, which has reached the marketing stage, has proven to be safe and effective for chickens, making it possible for Migal to develop a similar vaccine against coronavirus in humans.
As an institution for scientific research and development, Migal receives funding from the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Agriculture, competitive research grants, and from KKL-JNF. The partnership between KKL-JNF and Migal goes back many years:
Hula Lake Project: When this KKL-JNF-led initiative began in 1994, the Migal Institute conducted research and monitoring activities at Hula Lake Park, creating the database of extensive knowledge now available on Hula Lake’s water systems, land, flora and fauna. KKL-JNF, which funded Migal’s Hula Lake monitoring project for many years, uses the above information to manage the Hula Lake efficiently and effectively.
Israel 2040: In the framework of its Israel 2040 project, KKL-JNF has awarded scholarships to biotechnology students in their last year of studies at Tel Hai College in the Galilee. The 25,000 NIS grants are being given in two installments: The first 10,000 NIS was distributed over the past year, and the remaining 15,000 will be given to students who decide to remain in the Galilee after their studies and work there. Many of the grantees are doing their final thesis at the Migal Institute, and are expected to stay on at the institute to work there.
Strengthening the North: This project, approved as part of an agreement between KKL-JNF and the Israeli government, has recently begun. Within this framework, the Migal Institute has received 20 million shekels from KKL-JNF. The funds are being used to renovate the Institute’s old structure, purchase scientific equipment, and to promote a plan for Precision Agriculture (also known as Satellite Farming or Site Specific Crop Management).  
Also thanks to KKL-JNF funding, Migal has been able to purchase specialized equipment for developing the COVID-19 vaccine, including an instrument for measuring viruses and an instrument for separating proteins.
The institute’s previous work on avian coronavirus has led to the creation of a vaccine that is administered orally and can be produced in relatively large quantities at significantly less cost than other methods.
The vaccination is based on three subunits of chemical proteins that act as antigens for creating antibodies in the immune system. These proteins include the S envelope protein (S-protein) used by the virus when entering a living cell, along with two additional subunits of N-protein, an internal protein connected to the genetic composition of protein sequences that led to the development of a successful vaccine against the coronavirus in chickens.  Advanced mathematical tools are used to locate and compare these protein sequences to the COVID-19 sequence in humans. Suitable sequences are then used to map subunits that are adapted to creating a vaccine against COVID-19. The vaccination creates a response against two different proteins of the virus that act according to separate mechanisms, making the immune response very effective.
The Migal team estimates that they will be ready to begin their clinical trials with (human) volunteers in a few short months. Even if their vaccine will not be the first to reach the market, it is still expected to be in great demand, since, unlike other vaccinations being developed, this one is administered orally (not by means of an injection), the development process is relatively safe, and there is very high demand worldwide for vaccinations.
KKL-JNF now hopes to procure further funding to help the Migal Institute speed up development of the vaccine, and also to establish a vaccination center for the development of future vaccines, both for genetic mutations of the coronavirus and for other viruses that are liable to break out in the future.
Since its establishment in 1901, KKL-JNF’s pioneering and innovative spirit has accompanied the State of Israel at every stage of its development. With its characteristic daring and foresightedness, KKL-JNF is leading the way in transforming Israel’s geographical and social periphery into the country’s next engine of growth and innovation.