After stirring ahead in the race to inoculate its population from the coronavirus, Israel has struck a deal with Pfizer, promising to discuss vast troves of medical information with the international drug giant in exchange for its continued flow of its hard-to-get vaccine.
Proponents say the deal could allow Israel to become the first country to vaccinate the majority of its inhabitants, while providing invaluable study that could assist the rest of the world. But critics say the deal raises significant ethical concerns, such as possible privacy violations and a portion of the international divide that permits wealthy countries to stockpile vaccines as poorer inhabitants, such as Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza, must wait longer to be inoculated.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- who is stumping before the country's March elections as Israel's vaccinator-in-chief -- said earlier this month he reached the agreement with Pfizer's chief executive to accelerate vaccine deliveries to Israel.
"Israel will be a global model condition," he said. "Israel will share with Pfizer and with the entire world the statistical information that will help create strategies for beating the coronavirus."
Israeli Health Minister Yuli Edelstein told The Associated Press the government will turn over information to"see how it affects, to start with, the amount of this disease in Israel, the possibility to open the economy, different facets of social life, and if there are any effects of the disease"
However much remains unknown, such as its long-term protection and if it may stop transmission of the virus.
Israel, home to some 9.3 million people, is regarded as an ideal place for studying these concerns. Its mandatory universal healthcare is provided by four publicly financed HMOs with meticulously digitized medical documents. This centralized system has helped Israel administer more than two million doses of the vaccine in under a month. Israel has also bought doses of the Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines.
The inoculation blitz is a matter of national pride. Additionally, it is at the center of Netanyahu's reelection campaign as he seeks to divert attention from his ongoing corruption trial, Israel's deep financial crisis and the latest virus explosion.
The Health Ministry has listed over 551,000 cases since the beginning of the pandemic and more than 4,000 deaths. Israeli officials say they aim to have all the country vaccinated by the end of March, only around election day.
Neither Israel nor Pfizer would state how much Israel has paid for its vaccines, although Edelstein called it a"classical idiot" for either side. Israeli media have reported that Israel paid at least 50% more than other countries. The data is allegedly being shared using the World Health Organization, but the global body didn't respond to repeated requests for comment.
Before this month, the head of the WHO appealed to drugmakers and wealthier nations to"stop making bilateral deals," saying they harm a U.N.-backed effort to widen access. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus didn't single out any states or businesses.
Last week, Dr. Siddhartha Datta, WHO Europe's program manager for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization, said the agency is attempting to accumulate"disaggregated" information -- according to age, sex, local area, employment and other factors -- and reporting on any security issues since the vaccines have been deployed.
Israel had announced the acquisition of millions of vaccine doses before the Pfizer deal was announced. It's unclear how the amount or pace of deliveries has changed, or whether the vaccines are diverted from other countries.
The arrangement has attracted attention to the unequal distribution of vaccines between rich and poor states . A recent estimate from the global Rescue Committee said that the WHO's international COVAX effort is likely to vaccinate only 20% of the world's lower-income nations by the end of 2021.
"This is a dishonest, under-the-table deal that preferences certain countries over others with no transparency," said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of international health law at Georgetown University in Washington. "At the end, it's going to be low- and high-income nations which are likely to be left behind"
Dr. Nadav Davidovitch, head of the faculty of public health at Israel's Ben Gurion University and an advisor to the government on coronavirus policy, said the deal has raised troubling concerns regarding the deepening disparity of vaccination attempts.
"In order to eliminate COVID-19 or control in an efficient way, we will need to observe the global picture," Davidovitch said.
That disparity is particularly striking in the case of both Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, who reside under varying degrees of Israeli management and have yet to get any vaccines.
While vaccinating its own Arab citizens and Palestinian residents of Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, Israel says it isn't accountable for inoculating the Palestinians. Edelstein said Israel will look at helping once it deals with its own citizens.
But the Palestinians and major human rights groups state Israel remains an occupying power and is responsible for providing them vaccines.
"I genuinely feel that we need to see how people get the vaccine to the Palestinian Authority," explained Davidovitch, acting chairman of Israel's association of public health professionals. "We are speaking about it with the ministry of health, and I truly hope that soon this item is going to be solved."
Additionally, it is unsure exactly what information is being shared with Pfizer. According to the redacted agreement,"no identifiable health information" will likely be shared, and the research is to be published in a recognized medical journal.
It said Israel will offer weekly data to Pfizer about various demographic and age groups. The purpose, it said, is to"analyze epidemiological data arising out of your product rollout, to ascertain whether herd resistance is achieved after reaching a specific percentage of vaccination policy in Israel."
The information, it added, is"aimed at helping finish the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic for the benefit of patients inside and out of Israel."
Privacy Israel, an advocacy group who had petitioned the authorities to disclose the bargain, welcomed its release but said particular questions remained unanswered, mostly regarding the handling and security of private information. Additionally, it blacked out specific details, such as keywords and the names of officials involved. Still, it stated there's a"bit more certainty" about sharing information with a global company.
Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, an expert in digital solitude in the Israel Democracy Institute, questioned the ethics of a deal which could bring millions in earnings to Pfizer. She also said sharing large amounts of information could still potentially put individuals' privacy at risk, even if it's supposedly made anonymous.
"If, God forbid, the information collection will be hacked, then the threat is going to be yours," she said, referring to Israeli citizens.