Pfizer CEO: I’m sure Netanyahu’s desire for vaccine deal also linked to politics

Bourla says key reason Israel chosen for rollout was that then-PM ‘was on top of everything’; says Holocaust survivor parents taught him he can do anything, but be ready for worst

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla speaks during a press conference at Pfizer's factory in Puurs, Belgium. (John Thys/Pool/AFP)
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla speaks during a press conference at Pfizer's factory in Puurs, Belgium. (John Thys/Pool/AFP)

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said in an interview published Saturday that former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s persistence played a major role in Israel being chosen to study the real-world effect of the coronavirus vaccine — but that he was aware that it was a politically expedient move by the Likud leader.

Bourla told the Financial Times how Israel came to be picked as the location of a real-world examination of the vaccine’s efficacy in return for supplies of the shots.

The pharma giant’s head said the Jewish state was a small nation with a good system for collecting data: Greece had been considered but electronic medical record-keeping was not good enough; and Sweden was dismissed amid concerns that other European Union countries could be angered if the Scandinavian nation were singled out.

The Pfizer boss said that a key factor in the choice of Israel was Netanyahu’s persistence. But Bourla said he was aware that it was in the Likud leader’s political interest to be seen as bringing the country out of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year, ahead of yet another election.

“The biggest thing that became clear was Bibi was on top of everything, he knew everything,” Bourla said, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “He called me 30 times, asking: ‘What about young people . . . what are you doing about the South African variant?’ I’m sure he was doing it for his people, but I’m also sure he was thinking: ‘It could help me politically.’”

Vaccine doses began arriving in Israel in December. The country announced in January that it had struck a deal with Pfizer, promising to share vast troves of medical data with the international drug giant in exchange for the continued flow of its hard-to-get shots.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the arrival of over 100,000 doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine, at Ben Gurion Airport, on December 9, 2020. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

Israel, home to some 9.3 million people, was considered an ideal place for studying the vaccine in a real-world setting. Its mandatory universal health care is provided by four publicly funded HMOs with meticulously digitized medical records.

While the mass vaccination drive temporarily appeared to bring Israel out of the pandemic, the arrival of the highly contagious Delta variant has now plunged the country back into crisis. The government has launched a fresh campaign to give booster shots to all those age 50 and up in a bid to strengthen immune defenses and bring the disease back under control.

Bourla has spoken with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett since he became premier, although Netanyahu has also called the Pfizer boss behind the premier’s back.

The Pfizer boss also discussed the fact that he is increasingly talking about being the son of Holocaust survivors.

“I was never vocal about these things,” he said. “Even my closest friends knew only a little of it.”

Bourla said that his father hid during the Holocaust and at the end of World War II, discovered that his parents and two of his three siblings were among the tens of thousands of Jews from Thessaloniki who were killed.

Bourla’s mother was captured during the war and only escaped being killed by a firing squad because her Christian brother-in-law gave “all his money to pay bribes.”

A woman places a flower on the Holocaust memorial in Thessaloniki, during a protest against its desecration, on July 4, 2018. (AFP/ Sakis Mitrolidis)

The CEO said that it was not his story to tell, but his mother’s. “I don’t want it to become folklore because, it may be inspirational or not, but . . . she was the one who was arrested, she was sexually abused, and physically abused at 17, 18 years old.”

Bourla said experiences during the war were openly discussed in the family.

“They never spoke [of] revenge… If you have ever seen an Italian film, La Vita è Bella, it was kind of like that: a story of horror but given with humor,” he said.

Bourla said his mother and father had very different approaches to life in the wake of their experiences during the Holocaust.

“‘Life is miraculous,’ [my mother] told me. ‘I was in front of a firing squad seconds before they pulled the trigger, and I survived. And look at me now. Nothing is impossible. You can do anything you want,’” Bourla said.

“What I got from my dad was to identify what can go wrong,” he added.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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