First volunteer for Israeli vaccine trials, feted by Netanyahu, got the placebo

The man who was widely feted by politicians and the media as the first volunteer in the trials for Israel’s coronavirus vaccine revealed Wednesday that he had been given the placebo dose.

The Defense Ministry’s Institute for Biological Research is developing the vaccine, called Brilife, and in December successfully completed the first stage of testing and started the second phase, which is ongoing.

Segev Harel, a 26-year-old university student, was injected at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan on November 1, and subsequently received high-profile visits by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein.

He remained in the hospital for 24 hours, after which he published English-language comments: “Hello everybody, good morning, thank you all for your support. I’m here after spending the night in Sheba Medical, and now I’m going home and I feel great, and I hope we will bring the vaccine to Israel and to the whole world.”

But speaking Wednesday with the Ynet news site, Harel said that he had since discovered that wasn’t the first to receive the Israeli vaccine after all, and that he had been one of roughly half of the volunteers to get the placebo and be part of the control group in the experiment.

“About two-three weeks ago I contacted Sheba to check when I can get vaccinated,” he said, referring to the fully approved Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. “They opened my file and discovered I had received the placebo and not the real vaccine. And that’s after all the tumult and the excitement.”

He said he had privately undergone an antibody test 45 days after receiving the shot, “because I haven’t hugged my grandfather since the pandemic began and I wanted to hug him.”

He said he was also planning to travel to Dubai. However, no antibodies were found in his body, meaning that either he had gotten the placebo or the vaccine hadn’t worked.

“I was a bit disappointed because I wanted to be part of the experiment, but that’s the point,” Harel said. “Some volunteers get the real vaccine and some get the placebo.”

“It turns out that even Bibi Netanyahu can’t influence experiments,” he quipped, using the prime minister’s nickname.

Sheba Medical Center nurse Hala Litwin injects a dose into Israel’s first human test subject, Segev Harel, as part of trials for an experimental coronavirus vaccine on November 1, 2020. (Defense Ministry)

He said he had since gotten the Pfizer vaccine on the advice of his grandmother, Prof. Leah Mendelsohn, who manages the main virus lab at Sheba.

The approval of several international vaccines and Israel’s rapid inoculation campaign, have raised questions about the need for a domestically produced option that will be ready for distribution long after its competitors, but the trial is continuing on schedule.

Harel said he thought the Israeli vaccine was still relevant since “I think the coronavirus will stay with us, and it’s important to have an Israeli vaccine for years to come.”

The head of the Ness Ziona-based laboratory, Shmuel Shapira, told the Knesset last month that the vaccine — dubbed Brilife, a portmanteau of the Hebrew word for health — bri’ut — and life — would likely only be ready for distribution to the public in the summer of 2021. He blamed over-regulation and lack of sufficient government support for causing significant delays in its trial process.

Vials of a potential coronavirus vaccine are seen on an assembly line, in a photograph released by the Israel Institute for Biological Research on October 25, 2020. (Defense Ministry)

Some 15 million doses are being produced of the vaccine, which unlike those manufactured by international competitors Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, is given in a single dose, Shapira told the Knesset’s Science and Technology Committee.

The Defense Ministry has told Channel 13 news that the Institute for Biological Research vaccine was necessary to ensure Israel would have independent access to a vaccine. It has been described by other officials as a backup plan to supplement vaccines purchased from pharmaceutical firms based abroad.

Judah Ari Gross and agencies contributed to this report.

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