News Digest — 3/31/20

Israel Virus Death Toll Reaches 18; 4,831 Cases – US Company To Test Vaccine

Johnson and Johnson said on Monday (30th) that the company and the US government will invest $1 billion to create enough manufacturing capacity to make more than a billion doses of a vaccine it is testing to stop the new coronavirus that has killed more than 35,000 people worldwide.  

As part of the arrangement, the government will pay $421 million to support the company’s efforts to build new manufacturing capacity in the United States.

J&J said it had selected its own lead vaccine candidate and would start human testing by September, with an eye on having it ready under an emergency-use authorization in early 2021, far quicker than the typical 18-month period that it takes for vaccines to be tested, approved and then manufactured.

J&J Chief Scientist Officer Dr. Paul Stoffels told Reuters the company had to start ramping manufacturing capacity now, even before it has a signal of how well its experimental vaccine candidate works.

“That’s the only option for us to get it done on time,” Stoffels said in a phone interview. 

“The company has a manufacturing plant in the Netherlands that can make up to 300 million doses of vaccine,” Stoffels said, adding that this amount still,”will absolutely not be sufficient for the world.”

He said J&J is starting to build a plant in the United States now so it can be ready to manufacture vaccines by the end of the year, when data from its clinical trials will show whether the vaccine works.  Nearly half of the $1 billion will come from the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), which is looking to expand on J&J’s previous collaboration with the agency.

Stoffels said the coronavirus vaccine will be based on the same technology used to make its Ebola vaccine, which has been widely-used in people, and the company believes it will prove safe.

The new coronavirus, which began in Wuhan, China, has infected people in most countries around the world.

Meanwhile, as of Tuesday morning (31st), Israel reported 4,831 confirmed cases of COVID-19 virus, and 18 deaths, including a 50-year-old woman who died at the Sheba Medical Center and a 49-year-old mother of twins who just passed away at the Assef Harofeh Hospital.  Both are said to have had underlying health conditions; both are the youngest to have died from the virus so far.



Despite Self-Quarantine – For Netanyahu – It’s Mostly Business As Usual

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday (30th) delivered another one of his near-nightly updates on the government’s steps to fight the spread of the coronavirus.  But this time, something was different: While he usually addresses the nation from the briefing room in the Prime Minister’s Office, on Monday he was speaking from his official residence in Jerusalem on Balfour Street.

“The cameraman is 20-feet away, and I did my own makeup and hair, which is why it looks like this.” he said, after first going live by accident.  “I continue to work from home.”

Earlier on Monday, news emerged that one of his advisers, Rivka Paluch contracted the novel coronavirus, sending the prime minister and some of his staff into self-quarantine.  Netanyahu, his family and close co-workers were immediately tested, and found not to carry the virus, but he said he voluntarily isolated himself “in order to set a personal example.”

They joined nearly 150,000 Israelis who have self-quarantined since the COVID-19 pandemic started earlier this year.

The prime minister’s spokesperson, Shir Cohen, later on Monday evening clarified that Netanyahu would stay in self-quarantine for now, according to Health Ministry directives (even people whose tests come back negative are required to remain isolated if they come in contact with sick individuals, as false negatives can occur, and the virus can be missed during the incubation period).

While it is currently unclear how long Netanyahu will remain in quarantine, a situation in which a prime minister is unable to leave his own home is unprecedented in Israeli history. 

But as Monday’s broadcast demonstrated, whether in quarantine or not, Netanyahu is determined to carry on business as usual.



Mossad Obtains 10 Million More Coronavirus Masks For Israel

The Mossad purchased 10 million protective medical masks to help deal with the coronavirus more than a week ago under the leadership of its director, Yossi Cohen, The Jerusalem Post  learned.  Due to the sensitivity of the information, it could not be reported until Monday (30th) when they arrived in Israel.

In addition to the 10 million masks, the Mossad brought a few dozen ventilators, tens of thousands more test kits, and around 25,000 N95 surgical masks that are designed to protect the wearer from airborne particles.  The intelligence agency is expected to bring even more medical equipment to the country, as Cohen heads up a special command center along with other national security units and the Health Ministry.

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Cohen was taking over the country’s efforts to purchase medical equipment from abroad.

Cohen succeeded in bringing 100,000 test kits to Israel two weeks ago, with an estimated four million on the way.

The Post learned at the time that the kits were obtained from countries with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations.  A report by Al Jazeera said the countries were in the Persian Gulf, which could be one reason why the Mossad took the lead.



Israeli Doctor In Italy Notes New, Innovative Treatments – Ira Tolchin Immergluck

Carmi Sheffer, an Israeli doctor at the University Hospital of Padua in northern Italy, says the country is close to “flattening the curve” with some new treatments appearing to be helping some COVID-19 patients.  “In the past few days, people have begun to recover, in part due to new medications, he said.

In Padua, the autoimmune medicine Tocilizumab has proven effective, but can only be used once it is established that no other viruses or bacteria are present in patients.  The hospital has also seen positive results from the antiviral drug Remdesivir.  

500 patients in northern Italian hospitals are receiving ventilators that use a snorkeling mask, with a part that connects it to the machine being printed by a 3D printer.

He said dramatic results were observed when they had patients lie on their stomachs instead of on their backs while on the ventilator.  “Suddenly the oxygen level in the blood jumped by hundreds of percent.”



Monsey Hanukkah Stabbing Victim Josef Neumann Dies

Josef Neumann, a victim in the Monsey stabbing attack last Hanukkah died on Sunday (29th).

“We are sad to inform you that Josef Neumann who was stabbed during the Hanukkah attack in Monsey late December 2019, passed away this evening,” the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council tweeted on Sunday.

During the attack, Neumann sustained serious injuries to his brain, neck and right arm.

In February, doctors were optimistic Neumann would recover after he opened his eyes and began breathing on his own.

“We were hoping when he started to open his eyes he would get better,”Rabbi Yisroel Kahan, the community liaison for the Ramapo Police Department, told The Journal News on Sunday.

“We were hoping and praying he would pull through.  This is so very sad that he was killed celebrating Hanukkah with friends just because he was a Jew,” he added.

Neumann was a father of seven children, a grandfather and a great-grandfather.

On December 28, 2019, Grafton Thomas stormed into the house of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg in Monsey, NY and hacked the 72-year-old and four other Orthodox Jews with a machete during a Hanukkah party.

In January, Thomas pleaded not guilty on six counts of attempted murder and 10 hate crime charges.  Because Neumann died, it is expected prosecutors will seek the death penalty.

On Thomas’ cellphone, the FBI found references to Hitler, the Nazis and anti-Semitic material.