Why an Israeli company is developing an oral Covid vaccine

By: AFP      Published: 09:46 AM, 1 Aug, 2021
Why an Israeli company is developing an oral Covid vaccine
Oramed CEO Nadav Kidron

Imagine a Covid-19 vaccine that came as a pill: no needles, no medical professionals required to administer it, potentially delivered directly to people's homes. 

Israeli pharmaceutical Oramed is attempting to accomplish just that, and is poised to start its first clinical trial in early August, CEO Nadav Kidron told AFP in an interview.

With just 15 percent of the world's population fully vaccinated, the global fight to end the pandemic is far from over.  

Oral vaccines are particularly attractive for the developing world, because they reduce the logistical burden of immunization campaigns, said Kidron.

But they could also increase uptake in wealthy countries where needle aversion is an often missed factor in hesitancy. 

A recent survey found nearly 19 million Americans who decline vaccines would take them if they had a pill option.

"In order for the vaccine to really work well, we need as many people to take it as possible," said Kidron.  

Other benefits include reduced syringe and plastic waste, and potentially fewer side effects.

- Challenges for oral delivery -  

Despite many theoretical advantages, there have been few successful oral vaccines because the active ingredients tend not to survive the journey through the gastro-intestinal tract.

Exceptions include vaccines for diseases that are themselves transmitted through the mouth and digestive system -- for example there is an effective oral polio vaccine.

Oramed, which was founded in 2006, believes it has overcome the technical hurdles by designing a capsule that survives the highly acidic environment of the gut. 

It invented its technology for a previous product, an experimental oral form of insulin, the lifesaving drug required by diabetics that has until now been only administered by injection. 

Developed with Nobel Prize winning biochemist Avram Hershko who is on Oramed's scientific advisory board, the company's capsule has a highly protective coating that makes it slow to degrade.

It also releases molecules called protease inhibitors that stop enzymes in the small intestine from breaking down the insulin, and an absorption enhancer to help the insulin cross into the bloodstream.

This drug has been dosed in hundreds of patients in late stage clinical trials in the US, with results expected in September 2022.

Oramed has now launched a new majority-owned company called Oravax, which takes the capsule technology from the oral insulin product and uses it for an oral Covid-19 vaccine.

- Virus-like particle - 

To evoke an immune response, the company's scientists have designed synthetic coronavirus-like particles. 

These mimic three key structures of the pathogen: the spike protein, the envelope protein and the membrane protein.

Most currently authorized vaccines, like Pfizer or AstraZeneca, are based on the spike protein alone, making them less protective over time as the spike protein of the coronavirus mutates. 

By targeting multiple parts of the virus, including structures that mutate less, the Oravax vaccine could be more variant-proof, Kidron said.

The company has applied to begin trials in multiple countries and expects to begin its first in Israel within weeks, pending approval from the health ministry.

Kidron said he foresaw a role for the vaccine initially in developing countries which haven't yet bought up enough supply of current vaccines -- before eventually developed markets.

A vaccine pill could become especially attractive if ongoing boosters are required.

If it's successful, it would also represent a proof of concept for future orally administered vaccines, he added.

"Imagine... the flu vaccine comes to you in the mail, you take it, you're done." 

Covid cases trigger new rules

Several hundred Israelis demonstrated Saturday in Tel Aviv against new coronavirus restrictions and vaccines as positive cases and hospitalisations rose to levels not seen in months. 

The health ministry reported Saturday that 2,435 new Covid cases had been recorded the day before -- the highest number since March -- driven by the more contagious Delta variant.

There were 326 hospitalisations, the highest since April, although well below the January peak, when more than 2,000 people were being hospitalised daily.

Israel has in recent days rolled out a booster vaccine shot for older citizens, reimposed mask requirements indoors and restored "green pass" restrictions requiring vaccine certificates for entering enclosed spaces such as gyms, restaurants and hotels.

The rise in infections is a step back after Israel's world-leading vaccine campaign drove down new Covid-19 cases from 10,000 a day to fewer than 100.  

Protesters Saturday flew a banner that read, "There's no pandemic, it's a con". They held up placards denouncing coronavirus vaccines, with one poster linking vaccines to the Nazis. 

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz told Israeli Channel 12 TV Saturday that he intended to balance public health with livelihood. 

"The economy must remain open," he said.

"I don't want to impose a lockdown and I will avoid a lockdown at all costs. Everything is open -- but we need masks and we need vaccines." 

Nearly 60 percent of Israel's 9.3 million people have gotten two shots, mostly with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine

But about one million Israelis still refuse to be vaccinated even though they are eligible.

From Sunday, some children between ages five and 11 at risk of health complications will become eligible for vaccines.