Jerusalem Hospital Orders 1.5 Million Doses of Russian COVID Vaccine Despite Concerns

Top Israeli hospital's CEO believes fears of the coronavirus vaccine are unfounded and have more to do with tensions between Moscow and Washington

Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel
 A nurse prepares Russia's "Sputnik-V" vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) for inoculation in a post-registration trials stage at a clinic in Moscow, Russia September 17, 2020.
A nurse prepares Russia's "Sputnik-V" vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) for inoculation in a post-registration trials stage at a clinic in Moscow, Russia September 17, 2020. Credit: TATYANA MAKEYEVA/ REUTERS
Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel

Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center has ordered 1.5 million doses of a Russian vaccine against the coronavirus, hospital director Zeev Rotstein said Tuesday.

First reported on Army Radio, Rotstein added that the hospital will give the Health Ministry all necessary data about the vaccine this week, with the goal of obtaining a permit to administer it to Israelis.

Rotstein, who has clashed repeatedly with the ministry in recent months, is convinced that the fears voiced in the media about the vaccine aren’t well-founded, and that they have more to do with the global struggle between Russia and the United States than with the scientific data. But even if the ministry refuses to approve the vaccine, he said in an interview with Haaretz, “We’ll have something do with it,” because Hadassah also operates overseas.

The Russian vaccine has been in phase three clinical trials since August and has already been given to tens of thousands of people. Hadassah’s branch in Moscow has both given the vaccine to people and monitored them afterward, “and the results and safety we’ve seen have been very good,” Rotstein said.

Hadassah’s activities in Moscow are what led the Russian authorities to propose that the hospital seek Israeli approval for the vaccine, he added. If the phase three trials show that the vaccine is both safe and effective, and if the Health Ministry approves its use, the vaccine could be available in Israel in two to three months.

Rotstein stressed that until the phase three trial ends and the data has been analyzed, it’s impossible to know if the vaccine will be effective in preventing the virus. But based on the data so far, he said, “There’s a good probability that the vaccine is safe. And there’s a reasonable probability ... that it’s also effective.”

Both the development of the Russian vaccine and Russia’s unusual decision to administer it to its own citizens, even before the phase three trials ended, have been widely criticized worldwide. But Rotstein insisted that much of this criticism stems from the American-Russian battle over who will develop a vaccine first.

“It’s like the space race,” he said. “It’s no wonder the Russians called the vaccine Sputnik 5. They wanted to remind the Americans who reached space first.”

He admitted that Russian regulation is relatively lax. But he said he is personally acquainted with senior Russian officials who were vaccinated, “and they didn’t grow horns. They’re walking around without masks. ... They told me they tested the level of antibodies in their bodies, and it was high.”

Israelis with Russian citizenship and Russian Jews have also rushed to get the vaccine, he added, though he acknowledged, “I’m talking about something nonscientific, something behavioral,”

Errors are always possible, he said, and it’s also possible that the Russians “are pulling one over on us.” But he said Hadassah’s Moscow branch, which has been involved in the study, has been fully transparent.

Weighing all these considerations led Rotstein to promise to pay a price that has yet to be determined for 1.5 million doses of the vaccine. He added that Hadassah is high on the list of customers, but he still can’t be sure the order will be filled in full. “We requested an additional 1.5 million doses, but we didn’t get approval for that,” he added.

He said a group of investors is backing the deal, which limits the financial risk to the hospital. Consequently, he said, it shouldn’t harm the hospital’s operating budget.

If the Health Ministry approves the vaccine, Hadassah will let the ministry, the health maintenance organizations and other groups buy the doses from it. If not, Rotstein said, they will be used by Hadassah’s overseas branches.

But even if the vaccine passes its phase three trial, the ministry approves it and the Russians supply the full amount, Rotstein stressed that a vaccine is only one component – albeit an important one – of any strategy for coping with the virus.

“I assume we’ll be living with the coronavirus for quite some time yet,” he said. “But the more recovered patients we have and the more vaccinated people, the harder it will be for the virus to create outbreaks.”

For now, he’s crossing his fingers that the Russian vaccine will pass its phase three trials. “I have no choice now,” he said. “I’m in this deep.”

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