Israel said concerned it’s not near front of line for Pfizer vaccine

Public broadcaster says acquisition talks with US pharma firm being led by junior officials, prompting criticism of Health Ministry director for not prioritizing the purchase

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

Health officials are reportedly concerned Israel may have missed the chance to promptly acquire the COVID-19 vaccine being developed by US pharmaceutical firm 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.

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.

The talks with Pfizer are reportedly for enough doses to vaccinate 3.5 million Israelis.

Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy during a press conference in Jerusalem about the coronavirus, on July 13, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to Kan, there is now concern in the health system that due to the encouraging results from Pfizer’s phase 3 trials, Israel could find itself well down the list of countries in line to purchase the vaccine, with Health Ministry director-general Chezy Levy facing criticism for not prioritizing the matter.

In an interview with the broadcaster, Levy denied the talks were led by lower-ranking officials.

“We’ve been dealing with vaccines for a few months already at the rank of director-general, minister and even above him,” Levy said.

“We already acquired the rights [for a vaccine] at several companies,” he added, referring to US firms Moderna and Arcturus.

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

Though competition may be intense among countries to acquire vaccines, the newspaper noted Pfizer has significant manufacturing capabilities and Israel only needs a relatively small number of shots, but these may not arrive until late next year.

Even if Israel is able to get its hands on Pfizer’s vaccine, there are expected to be major logistical challenges in bringing it to the Jewish state.

“The problem with Pfizer’s vaccine already begins in the transfer stage. The doses are required to be kept at minus 70 degrees [Celsius],” Dr. Yasmin Maor of Wolfson Medical Center in Holon told Army Radio.

“This will create complications in both distributing the vaccines to the population and also in purchasing and producing suitable refrigerators,” added Maor, who heads the hospital’s infectious disease unit.

The first patient enrolled in Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, May 4, 2020 (Courtesy of University of Maryland School of Medicine via AP, File)

Pfizer’s announcement, which put the company on track to apply later this month for emergency-use approval from the US Food and Drug Administration, was hailed Monday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who vowed to bring the shot to Israel.

Levy, the Health Ministry director, later confirmed that Israel is in talks to acquire the vaccine.

“We’re in talks toward signing with Pfizer,” Levy told Army Radio, after Hebrew-language media reported on the negotiations and described the talks as “advanced.”

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 has also reportedly been in contact with Russia and China to possibly use their vaccines if they prove effective, with a Jerusalem hospital ordering 1.5 million doses of the Russian shot in case trials eventually show it to be safe.

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

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