Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was confident Israel would reach a deal with Pfizer to procure COVID-19 vaccines, after speaking with the CEO of the US pharmaceutical firm currently closest to bringing coronavirus immunization to market.
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.
Netanyahu said his conversation with CEO Albert Bourla was “very substantive and very practical,” and anchored to Bourla’s Greek and Jewish heritage.
“I asked to speak with him and he responded immediately. It seems that Albert Bourla is very proud of his Greek and Jewish heritage from Thessaloniki and he told me that he holds the development of relations between Greece and Israel, which I have been leading in recent years, in high regard,” said Netanyahu in a video.
“Therefore, following this conversation, which was very substantive and very practical, I am convinced that we will complete the contract with Pfizer. This is very important news vis-à-vis bringing many vaccines to you, citizens of Israel. I hope we succeed,” added Netanyahu.
According to Greek media, Bourla is descended from a family that included some of the only survivors of Thessaloniki’s Jewish community following the Holocaust.
Channel 12 on Wednesday night claimed that during the conversation, Netanyahu secured a verbal commitment from Bourla to supply Israel with coronavirus vaccines, with the sides discussing a deal for three million shots (six million doses).
It said Israel is believed to have paid a NIS 100 million ($29.6 million) advance to negotiate with the firm, without guarantees.
Pfizer, which earlier Wednesday announced a deal to supply up to 300 million doses to the EU, said it could not confirm the details of the call with Netanyahu and denied any agreement with Israel.
“We’re not in a position to discuss details of private discussions. There is no agreement between Pfizer and Israel at this time,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
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 Monday by Netanyahu, who vowed to bring the shot to Israel.
While Israel would reportedly only seek a relatively small amount of doses of the vaccine, it’s not known how far up the list it could possibly move, with a number of other countries already in deals with Pfizer for initial delivery of hundreds of millions of doses.
Pfizer expects to produce 50 million doses this year and 1.3 billion in 2021: The United States has already ordered 100 million total including 20-30 million for delivery before the end of December. The European Union meanwhile has ordered 200 million, Japan 120 million, Britain 30 million and Canada 20 million.
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.
According to Kan, there was 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 ($120 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.
Should Moderna’s version prove to be similarly effective, logistical concerns may make it more attractive than Pfizer’s for countries such as Israel. The Pfizer vaccine must be stored at -94 degrees Fahrenheit (-70 degrees Celsius), whereas the Moderna model can be stored at -4 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature of a normal freezer.
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.
Bourla and another top Pfizer executive on Monday sold considerable portions of their stock as the vaccine news was announced, with the CEO unloading some 60% of his holdings (132,508 shares) in a $5.6 million sale. Pfizer Executive Vice President Sally Susman, meanwhile, sold 43,662 shares for $41.94 apiece, picking up some $1.8 million.