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Israel ‘days away’ from COVID vaccine deal with Pfizer, Netanyahu says

Prime minister holds second round of talks with pharma firm’s CEO, but health minister warns actual delivery of any doses will take months in best-case scenario

Illustrative: Empty vaccine bottles lie on a tray inside a small clinic in Gampela village on the outskirts of Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou, Saturday Oct. 10, 2020.(AP/Sam Mednick)
Illustrative: Empty vaccine bottles lie on a tray inside a small clinic in Gampela village on the outskirts of Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou, Saturday Oct. 10, 2020.(AP/Sam Mednick)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday that Israel was set to sign an agreement with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer within days for a potential coronavirus vaccine, hours after holding two phone calls with the firm’s CEO.

At the same time, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein warned that it would likely take a long time for Israel to actually begin to receive inoculations from any of the various vaccine development bets it has placed.

Netanyahu’s office said he held a middle of the night conference call with Pfizer chief Albert Bourla, Israeli deputy attorney general Roi Sheindorf, and Pfizer’s own legal adviser “in order to remove all the bureaucratic obstacles and difficulties in signing the deal,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

“During the call there was significant progress that will enable signing an agreement between Israel and the Pfizer company in the coming days,” the PMO said.

The call followed a conversation on Wednesday evening between Netanyahu and Bourla that the prime minister later described as “very substantive and very practical.”

Israel’s Channel 12 claimed in an unsourced report that in the initial call, Netanyahu secured a verbal commitment from Bourla to supply Israel with coronavirus vaccines, with the sides discussing a deal for three million vaccinations (six million shots) at an initial investment of NIS 100 million ($29.6 million).

Albert Bourla, chief executive officer of Pfizer, on Capitol Hill in Washington, February. 26, 2019. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

However, a Pfizer spokesman denied any agreement with Israel had been reached.

“We’re not in a position to discuss details of private discussions. There is no agreement between Pfizer and Israel at this time. Should this change we will endeavor to advise,” the spokesman said in an emailed statement to The Times of Israel, delivered before Netanyahu’s second call with Bourla.

Pfizer announced Monday that initial data indicated the vaccine it is developing with German partner BioNTech is 90 percent effective at preventing COVID-19, sparking optimism inoculations against the novel coronavirus could soon be available.

Pfizer’s announcement about the vaccine trial results, which put the company on track to apply later this month for emergency-use approval from the US Food and Drug Administration, was hailed at the time by Netanyahu, who vowed to bring the shot to Israel.

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 Monday’s announcement, putting it at a disadvantage.

One of those firms, Moderna, said Wednesday that it would likely announce its own preliminary results later this month.

However, Edelstein on Thursday said that even in the best circumstances a vaccine against the coronavirus will not arrive in Israel before the end of the year.

“I don’t know when we will start to receive the vaccine,” the health minister told Army Radio.

“The prime minister is certainly helping us in that matter quite a bit, and he deserves gratitude,” he said stressed that Health Ministry officials, along with those of other ministries, were making their own efforts and were in contact with a number of companies.

“Even in the most optimistic of scenarios a serious number of vaccines will not get to Israel this year,” he said. “When a deal is signed we will be happy to let the public know.”

“But we can’t get to a point where there is a vaccine in other countries but not here,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the inauguration of a COVID-19 coronavirus rapid testing center at Ben Gurion International Airport in Lod on November 9, 2020 (ATEF SAFADI / POOL / AFP)

Edelstein also thanked outgoing national coronavirus czar Roni Gamzu for his efforts, saying he “did excellent work. He did everything he could, which wasn’t always easy due to various different [government] bodies. We should all thank him.”

Gamzu ends his term on Thursday and was to be replaced by Nachman Ash, a former IDF chief medical officer.

The move comes as Israel has seen infection rates remain above 500 cases a day, with officials warning that plans to ease lockdown restrictions may be halted and new limits on movement put in place.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein speaks during a press conference in Airport City on September 17, 2020 (Flash90)

Edelstein said that Gamzu’s so-called traffic light plan, which has not yet been implemented and which aims to color-code areas of the country according to infection rates and then apply local restrictions as needed, will still be used.

Evening curfews, he said, are still being discussed by ministers who are looking at the effectiveness of the measures and a final decision will be made in the coming days.

While Israel would reportedly only seek a relatively small number of doses of the Pfizer vaccine, it’s not known how far up the list it could possibly move, with a number of other countries already in deals with the firm for initial delivery of hundreds of millions of doses.

Earlier this week, health officials reportedly expressed concern that Israel may have missed the chance to promptly acquire the COVID-19 vaccine being developed by Pfizer when it’s approved for general use. Talks over the past two months between Pfizer and the Health Ministry have been handled by relatively junior officials, signaling it was not a top priority for Israel, the Kan public broadcaster reported Monday.

Israel has already paid a total of NIS 405 million ($120 million) to Moderna, which is in phase 3 of vaccine development, and Arcturus, which is at an early stage in testing, out of about NIS 1 billion ($295 million) set aside for purchasing vaccines, according to the Haaretz daily.

Besides the agreements with Moderna and Arcturus, Israel has also inked a deal with Italian biotech firm ReiThera to supply a vaccine if and when developed.

Israel’s Hadassah Medical Center last week said it had preordered 1.5 million units of a Russian vaccine that is also in Phase 3 testing and that interim results have shown to be 92% effective. The hospital’s CEO Zeev Rotstein said at the time Hadassah would already apply for Health Ministry approval to use the vaccine, pending the final results of the Phase 3 testing.

Israel is also developing its own vaccine, albeit at a slower pace, with human trials beginning last week.

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