Israel seals vaccine deal with Pfizer, amid signs pandemic spreading again

PM says Israel will receive enough doses to inoculate 4 million Israelis, though reports say deal allows company to pull out of its promises if circumstances demand

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)
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)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday announced that Israel signed a deal with Pfizer to purchase millions of coronavirus vaccine shots, days after the US pharmaceutical firm said data suggested the vaccine was 90 percent effective at preventing COVID-19.

The announcement came amid new worrying signs that infections in the country may be trending upwards again.

A military task force warned Friday that recent declines in new infections had halted.

“If the present trend continues in light of the easing [of restrictions] that has been implemented and those that are on the table, a renewed rise in morbidity is expected in the coming days,” the Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center said in its daily report.

And the Ynet news site reported that internal Health Ministry data showed the pandemic’s R-naught — the number of people each infected person infects — had risen to 1.0 for the first time since Israel began emerging from its second national lockdown in mid-October.

Any R-naught value above 1 means the pandemic is growing, while values below 1 show it is shrinking.

Such developments would likely stymie any further easing of national restrictions and possibly lead to some limitations being renewed.

As part of the agreement with Pfizer, Netanyahu said Israel would receive 8 million doses of the vaccine, 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.

“This is a great day for Israel and a great day for our victory over the coronavirus,” Netanyahu said in a televised statement at IDF military headquarters in Tel Aviv.

However, the Ynet news site reported that the deal does not obligate Pfizer to supply the vaccines but only states that it intends to do so “according to circumstances.” If it fails to supply them, the company will return Israel’s advance.

The report further said Israel will pay the NIS 120 million ($35 million) advance next week, 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.

Netanyahu noted that Israel has signed supply agreements with other firms developing vaccines and said that “the national mission” was to ensure every Israeli is vaccinated against the coronavirus. He also said he was lobbying world leaders to ensure Israel would be among the first countries to receive vaccines, “so we won’t be pushed back in line.”

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

Netanyahu thanked Albert Bourla, the CEO of Pfizer, with whom he spoke on the phone several times in recent days.

“The conversations between us led to the removal of the final obstacles and the closing of the deal,” he said.

With the vaccine not expected to be available for another few months, Netanyahu urged Israelis to continue following the government’s guidelines for preventing the spread of the virus.

“If we continue to work together… we’ll be among the first in the world to get out of the coronavirus crisis. That is the situation I’m continually striving for,” he said.

Speaking after Netanyahu, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said he hoped “significant quantities” of the vaccine would begin arriving in early 2021.

“This is very important but as I’ve said, we must not become complacent. There is no vaccine for complacency,” Edelstein said, calling on Israelis to wear masks and observe social distancing rules.

Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech confirmed the deal with Israel in a joint statement late Thursday.

Bourla said in a statement: “Having just reached a critical milestone in our vaccine development program, the world is beginning to feel a sense of hope that a potential vaccine could actually help end this devastating global pandemic. Today we finalized a critical supply agreement with the government of Israel that will provide the Israeli people with access to a COVID-19 vaccine once approved by regulatory authorities.”

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

However, its storage and transport require exceedingly cold temperatures, creating intense logistical complications.

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)

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.

Besides its agreements with Moderna and Arcturus, Israel has also inked a deal with Italian biotech firm ReiThera to supply a vaccine if and when developed, and is in talks with Russia to purchase a vaccine it is developing. Its own Biological Research Institute is also working on a vaccine candidate.

On Friday, the Health Ministry said 817 new virus cases were confirmed the previous day, and another 99 since midnight.

The number of COVID-19 patients in serious condition rose to 303, after dropping below 300 on Thursday for the first time in over three months.

Of those in serious condition, 133 were on ventilators. Out of the 8,059 total active cases, another 103 were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.

The Health Ministry said 39,160 tests were performed Thursday, with 2.1% coming back positive.

Since the start of the outbreak earlier this year, 322,463 people in Israel have tested positive for the coronavirus and 2,707 have died.

Israelis wear protective face masks in Tel Aviv on November 12, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel sharply brought down its daily coronavirus infection numbers from some 8,000 in mid-September to several hundred by late October with a nationwide lockdown, its second since the start of the pandemic. It has remained stubbornly above 500 cases a day on most days though, with 30,000 daily tests or more.

The lockdown paralyzed much of public life and the economy and shuttered the entire education system. The government began removing some restrictions a few weeks ago, opening preschools and kindergartens, then grades 1-4, as well as permitting some street-front businesses to begin operations. The rest of the education system has continued with remote learning.

Ministers ended a meeting Thursday without decisions on further easing the national lockdown, including proposals to reopen schools for grades 5-6 and use evening curfews to prevent mass events.

Netanyahu, speaking at a meeting of the so-called coronavirus cabinet, a forum of ministers who lay down policy for dealing with the virus outbreak, said that no decision on lifting the lockdown or other issues would be made, and that a further meeting of the cabinet will be held on Sunday.

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