Russians Don't Trust Their COVID Vaccine – and a Jerusalem Hospital Is Trying to Profit From It

Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder
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Administering the Russia-developed vaccine, Sputnik V.
Administering the Russia-developed vaccine, Sputnik V. Credit: Tatyana Makeyeva / Reuters
Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder

Jerusalem's Hadassah Medical Center intends to allow Russian citizens to receive the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines – which have not been approved for use in Russia yet – in a bid to step up its financial involvement in Russia's vaccination campaign.

As of now, the only vaccine approved for use in Russia is Sputnik V, which has been used to vaccinate about 1.5 million Russians. Hadassah’s hospital in Moscow participated in the Stage 3 clinical trials of the vaccine, which is claimed to have a 92 percent efficacy rate. But the Russian vaccine is still viewed with skepticism in the West and has not been approved for use by any leading health authorities, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The Russians began their vaccination campaign a few weeks ago, though the BBC has reported that the Russian public has very little faith in the vaccine. A survey conducted in Russia showed that 58 percent of respondents were not willing to take the Sputnik V vaccine, even if it was free.

Hadassah has promised not to use its stock of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines it received from the Israeli government – but will purchase vaccines separately for the Russians. Hadassah plans to take advantage of the fact that it operates the Hadassah Medical Moscow hospital there – an oncology hospital in the Skolkovo Innovation Center in the Russian capital. Skolkovo is a free trade zone, and according to Russian law, Hadassah is allowed to provide medicines that have been approved in Israel – but not in Russia – in its hospital there.

A fiery debate is unfolding on Russian social media over the various vaccines and the differences between them, with many people posting that they are willing to be vaccinated only with the Western vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca. But not only have these vaccines not been registered or approved in Russia, there is no timetable at all for their arriving in Russia, since both Pfizer and Moderna have orders to fill from other countries.

Pfizer vaccines stored in their freezers in Israel, December 2020.Credit: Gil Cohen Magen

Vaccines in February

Hadassah’s hospital in Moscow now wants to step in and fill this vacuum. The BBC reported this week that Hadassah Moscow announced it is negotiating to buy vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna and has already opened a waiting list for vaccinations – and has promised to supply these vaccines in Moscow to those who pay for it in February.

In response to this report, Pfizer said it is supplying vaccines only through its agreements with governments and not through private clinics – and it is impossible to send its vaccines to Russia via Hadassah's oncology clinic.

The report led to a flurry of rumors that Hadassah intends on sending vaccines from Israel – meant for Israelis – to its Moscow branch. Hadassah Director General Prof. Zeev Rotstein confirmed the details of the report to TheMarker – but said explicitly that “the vaccines that were purchased by Israel will of course not be transferred in any way to Moscow. These vaccines belong to the State of Israel.”

Prof. Zeev Rotstein, Director General of Hadassah Medical Organization. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Rotstein said the Hadassah Moscow hospital is in a free trade zone, which according to Russian law allows it to use any medicine or vaccine registered in Russia or Israel – a sort of extraterritorial zone where it is permitted to supply drugs not approved in Russia. “It is likely that Hadassah Moscow will allow city residents to choose the treatment or vaccine from a range of companies that are willing to supply the medicines or vaccines there,” Rotstein told TheMarker.

Hadassah Moscow is part of a system of hospitals there under the management of the city of Moscow, and in partnership with the Russian Jewish businessman Evgeni Tokolov, who owns a company with clinics and hospitals all over Russia.

As for Pfizer’s statement that it will not sell vaccines to any nongovernmental institution, Rotstein said its business partner is the one who is supposed to purchase the vaccines, and “maybe he will do so with the government.”

If medical tourism won't come to Israel – Hadassah will go to Moscow

Hadassah’s oncology hospital in Moscow is only partially open, but is expected to start full operations during the second half of this year. As to whether the vaccine initiative in its Moscow hospital is a moneymaking venture, Rotstein said: “All our activities in Moscow are a growth engine for Hadassah. We operate there, provide services, collect payments, and after paying for expenses [the money] is put back into Hadassah.”

Hadassah's branch in Moscow. Credit: stroi.mos.ru

Are we talking about a large amount of money?

“The hospital will enter full operation only in May or June. Until now, only the diagnostic center has been operating and only a few treatments are being provided there. But the entire hospital with the radiation treatments, surgery, hospitalization and the rest of the services will begin operating later. Money comes in today too, but not of the scope we are planning,” said Rotstein.

How much scope are you planning for?

“A lot.”

The rationale behind the establishment of Hadassah’s branch in Moscow is in part a result of the realization by the Israeli health system that the medical tourism that was once a source of profit for hospitals in Israel is now in a serious crisis for a number of reasons, with no signs of a turnaround.

That is why Hadassah is attempting to export Israeli medical services to Russia. Oncology treatments largely drove medical tourists to Israel, and this led to the decision to focus on these services.

“It is easier for us to go to Moscow than to bring medical tourism to Israel,” said Rotstein. The question is whether the doctors in Hadassah Moscow are Israelis or locals, in other words whether the initiative comes at the expense of Hadassah’s medical resources in Israel. “Some are Israelis who returned to Russia and some are Russians who trained with us,” said Rotstein. “At the moment, we have 85 doctors in the hospital, and the number will rise to 150 when it opens fully.”    

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