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Health chief says only 100,000 to get vaccine in 1st quarter of 2021; PM fumes

Chezy Levy reportedly tells ministers Israel will receive maximum of 200,000 shots at year’s start, is scolded by Netanyahu for unauthorized revelation

This May 4, 2020, photo provided by the University of Maryland School of Medicine shows the first patient enrolled in Pfizer's COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine clinical trial at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore (Courtesy of University of Maryland School of Medicine via AP)
This May 4, 2020, photo provided by the University of Maryland School of Medicine shows the first patient enrolled in Pfizer's COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine clinical trial at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore (Courtesy of University of Maryland School of Medicine via AP)

The director-general of the Health Ministry reportedly told ministers that only 100,000 Israelis will be able to receive the necessary two doses of the coronavirus vaccine ordered from US-based pharmaceutical company Pfizer in early 2021, earning a sharp rebuke from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“In the first quarter of 2021, a maximum of 200,000 vaccines will arrive, and even then it will take a month for each person to get vaccinated, because the two doses are needed one month apart,” health chief Chezy Levy reportedly told ministers at a cabinet meeting on Sunday, according to Army Radio.

The outlet did not reveal the exact response from the prime minister, but Netanyahu was said to have scolded Levy and said it wasn’t information the health chief was authorized to provide about the contract with Pfizer.

An expert said Saturday that with 800,000 shots, all Israelis over 70 can be vaccinated, and that 1.2 million vaccines would be required to cover the population over 65. The elderly  are considered at high risk for complications from the virus.

Health Ministry Director-General Prof. Chezy Levy speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Flash90)

Eran Segal, a computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, said that Israel could drive down its coronavirus death rate by up to 65 percent with just half a million people vaccinated if the Pfizer vaccine proves to 90% effective. Segal estimated in an interview with Channel 12 that if the vaccine is 70% effective in blocking the virus, the death rate would be cut by half.

After Pfizer announced last Monday that the still-experimental vaccine it is developing with Germany-based BioNTech had so far shown 90% effectiveness against the coronavirus in trials, Netanyahu began a crusade to secure the product for Israel, making at least two phone calls to Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla. By Friday Netanyahu announced that Israel had closed a deal.

As part of the agreement with Pfizer, Netanyahu said Israel would receive 8 million shots, enough to inoculate 4 million Israelis. Netanyahu expressed hope that Pfizer would begin supplying the vaccine in January, pending authorization from health officials in the United States and Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a televised statement on the signing of a deal to purchase Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine, at IDF military headquarters in Tel Aviv, November 13, 2020. At left is Health Minister Yuli Edelstein. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

However, according to Hebrew-language reports, Pfizer has made no commitment to a delivery schedule to Israel. Additionally, if there are any production limitations, or delays in the shipment, Israel will reportedly not be compensated for its down payment, Channel 13 news reported.

The Ynet news site reported on Friday that the deal does not obligate Pfizer to supply the vaccines but only states that it intends to do so “according to circumstances.”

The report further said Israel will pay a NIS 120 million ($35 million) advance, and another NIS 680 million ($202 million) when the first vaccines arrive. Pfizer will then provide hundreds of thousands of vaccines every month for the duration of 2021. Contrary to Channel 13, Ynet reported that if it fails to supply the vaccines, Pfizer will return Israel’s advance.

People walk by the Pfizer headquarters on November 9, 2020 in New York City.(David Dee Delgado/Getty Images/AFP)

On Sunday, Channel 13 news said Israel will pay a premium price for the millions of COVID-19 vaccines it has ordered from Pfizer, over 40 percent more than the US government or the European Union.

Israel has deals with two other pharmaceutical firms for vaccines, and is developing its own version as well, but had reportedly not been intensively engaged in talks with Pfizer before the trial results announcement, putting it at a disadvantage.

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