Late last year Israel was competing furiously with much larger countries to secure vaccine supplies from global manufacturers as the coronavirus pandemic raged. Now, it finds itself spearheading one of the world’s fastest vaccination drives, with more vaccine — both in-country and en route — than it will use.
How did a country with barely 9m citizens persuade companies courting markets with hundreds of millions of potential customers to fill its orders first? The answer lies in 17 conversations between Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s chief executive, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, and Yuli Edelstein, the health minister.
The two Israeli politicians promised to build one of the fastest vaccination drives in the world and share data on its impact on the pandemic, so long as supplies were plentiful and uninterrupted. Pfizer agreed and the deliveries started by mid-December.
“The company will be able to boast about it, to make profit from it and to publicise it,” said Mr Edelstein, in an interview with the Financial Times. “Without this, any company wouldn’t even be looking at our direction — they would be looking for markets a hundred times the size.”
With more deliveries due, Israel is now set to have a surplus of vaccines from all three main manufacturers by March.
Already the Pfizer deal has seen planeloads of BioNTech/Pfizer vaccines land nearly every Sunday in Tel Aviv, greeted by television cameras. While other countries have scrambled to ramp up supplies, and some face delays, Israel has administered first shots to more than 2.6m citizens, and second shots to just over 1.1m, mostly over the age of 60.
“We are vaccinating at 10 times the pace of the United States,” Mr Netanyahu said on Sunday, promising 1m new shots this week. “No country has done what we are able to do.”
The deal — and the breakneck efficiency of the vaccination drive — has bolstered Mr Netanyahu’s political fortunes, as he seeks re-election in late-March. He has toured vaccination centres, met the planes at the airport and framed the syringe he was jabbed with, bragging of his success in pulling off the national endeavour, which he has nicknamed “Back to Life”.
Deliveries of pre-ordered Moderna vaccine will pick up in March and millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine are also en route. By then Israel plans to have most of its adult population inoculated with Pfizer’s vaccine. What Israel will do with those extra supplies is still not clear, said Mr Edelstein. Israeli media have reported that some EU allies, such as Cyprus, had asked Mr Netanyahu for excess supplies, but Mr Edelstein denied those reports.
“We are not in the business of trading the extra vaccines,” he said. “We want to make sure we have enough for us and, if there is enough, we will see what we can do for our immediate neighbours — the fact that the Palestinians are in a bad shape right now is not in Israel’s interests.”
The Palestinian Authority is still waiting for supplies from Russia’s Sputnik V and the World Health Organization’s flagship vaccine distribution initiative, Covax.
Already hospitals around the country are collecting data on antibody counts in staff, and drops in infections among those who have received their second shots. Those data reveal that even with its world-beating pace — 40 per cent of Israelis have received at least one shot already — the pandemic has yet to be brought under control.
One study of those over 60 who have received the booster shot showed an immediate dip of at least 60 per cent in new infections, but another warned that new variants were making teenagers a worrying vector of rapid transmission, risking their parents.
Part of the reason for Israel’s infection rate is that Mr Netanyahu has struggled to enforce lockdown compliance among the ultraorthodox population, whose leaders prop up his coalition.
A more virulent strain, the B.1.1.7 variant first discovered in Britain, has also rampaged through the yet to be vaccinated, keeping hospital admissions and new infections near record highs. A record number of people are currently ventilated in hospitals, the Israeli parliament was told.
“In my mind, I have an image of two race cars — on the left is the car with the vaccine and, on the right, the surging numbers and rising infections,” said Mr Edelstein. “I just hope the car with the vaccine makes it to the finish line first.”
A Pfizer spokesperson said in an email that the “epidemiological analysis with the health ministry in Israel is unique in that it will allow an assessment of whether a certain vaccination rate will trigger herd protection on top of direct protection”. That will make clear if falling cases can be attributed to the vaccine or to herd protection, the spokesperson added.
So far, said Mr Edelstein, there has been nothing to share officially with Pfizer, because Israel has yet to achieve vaccine-induced herd immunity.
Health ministers in other countries are envious of Israel. “My counterparts in other countries tell me that I may be the only health minister in the world who is smiling right now,” said Mr Edelstein.
“I tell them it’s more like the [actors] in Greek mythology — half my face is smiling, the other half is crying.”
Additional reporting by Hannah Kuchler