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Why Are 700,000 Doses of Pfizer's COVID-19 Vaccine Meant for Israel Being Held Up?

Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder
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Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, last week.
Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, last week. Credit: Knesset Spokesperson's Office
Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder

Last week, it was repeatedly reported that a shipment of Pfizer vaccines had been frozen at the last minute due to nonpayment by the Israeli government. The first official admission of this came from Health Ministry director general Chezy Levy. He didn’t cite any numbers but said that Pfizer had halted a shipment to Israel until an agreement is signed.

On Friday, the television news magazine “Ulpan Shishi” reported that the company had halted a shipment of 700,000 doses of its coronavirus vaccine due to repeated disagreements within the government.

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Is Israel facing a dangerous shortage of vaccines, or could this be a tactic meant to pressure Defense Minister Benny Gantz and his Kahol Lavan party to approve the needed funding while waiving their own reservations and conditions?

Here are the answers to some of the key questions:

Where exactly do the vaccine puchases stand?

Israel has already used up the 10 million doses of Pfizer vaccine that were part of its initial deal with the company and have been paid for in full. The arguments within the cabinet relate to 2.8 million additional doses that are part of a new deal that hasn’t yet been signed and paid for.

The new vaccines are supposed to be used for adults who haven’t yet been vaccinated (about a million people) and children aged 12 to 15, who are expected to become eligible for vaccination in the next few weeks. Of the 2.8 million, 2.1 million have already been sent to Israel as an advance on the contract that hasn’t yet been signed and paid for. The final 700,000 doses haven’t yet been shipped.

Pfizer CEO Albert BourlaCredit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Who is to blame for that final shipment of 700,000 doses being halted?

There are conflicting stories. According to one, Pfizer is fed up with sending Israel vaccines without being paid for them, especially when the entire world is waiting for its vaccine. According to this story, Pfizer halted the shipment in a towering fury.

Another story holds that the Finance Ministry sought to stop the shipment because it violates proper governmental practice for the state to get merchandise it hasn’t yet paid for.

But either way, there’s no doubt that a situation in which Pfizer is letting Israel run a tab, as if the company were a neighborhood grocery store rather than a multinational corporation selling to a wealthy country, is undesirable for everyone.

Why hasn’t the cabinet convened to approve the vaccine agreement already?

Behind the scenes, there are major disagreements over both the deal itself (which involves other companies in addition to Pfizer) and the creation of a new 3.5 billion shekels ($1.1 billion) “vaccine budget” to pay for it.

Pfizer coronavirus vaccine ampoule, in DecemberCredit: Emil Salman

Originally, Gantz conditioned the cabinet meeting on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s approving his appointment as justice minister, which hasn’t yet happened. But the decision has also been delayed because treasury officials refuse to approve the deal, viewing it as wasteful.

In addition, some officials argue that there’s no need to approve such a generous new budget for vaccines. Instead, the Pfizer deal could be financed out of the existing budget, which still has funds for this purpose.

How worried should Israelis be that the shipment of 700,000 doses has been halted?

It depends. Israel currently has around two million Pfizer doses available for use, as well as a million more of Moderna’s vaccine, so there’s no real fear of a shortage of mRNA vaccines in the near future. Nevertheless, the country also clearly needs to look a little father ahead, to a time when Europe might embargo vaccine exports from its territory, making it harder to obtain new doses.

And from the standpoint of good governance, the embarrassing circus surrounding this vaccine deal ought to worry all Israelis. The country’s most critical business deals are currently being handled as if it were a dysfunctional neighborhood grocery. And in the current political climate, there don’t seem to be any responsible adults capable of putting a stop to this.

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