Senior Israeli scientists, doctors and academics have written letters urging the CEO of Pfizer, the manufacturer of the main coronavirus vaccine used in Israel, to postpone his visit to Israel due to fears that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will exploit his arrival for his campaign ahead of the country's March 23 election.
Albert Bourla is scheduled to arrive in Israel on March 8 at the invitation of Netanyahu. The trip has been coordinated by the National Security Council. Pfizer has committed to providing Israel with at least 10 million doses of the vaccine. So far, about 7.5 million Pfizer doses have been given to Israelis.
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Bourla has not yet responded to the letters. As of now, there are no signs that he intends to change his plans.
Netanyahu signed the agreement with Pfizer hastily in November 2020, after it became clear that Pfizer had overtaken Moderna Inc.(with which Israel had already signed an agreement) in the race to succerssfully produce and test the first vaccine.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu said: "I spoke to my friend, the CEO of Pfizer Albert Bourla, and we agreed there will be a continuous supply of Pfizer vaccines."
Netanyahu said last week that he and Bourla would discuss the possibility of setting up a Pfizer production plant and R&D center in Israel. Moderna is also considering opening an Israel-based production line.
Such a plant could help with the distribution of vaccines in the Middle East and central Asia. If it turns out that a third dose of the vaccine is needed due to new coronavirus variants, vaccine production in Israel could expedite the process for the company.
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Netanyahu has boasted that he spoke with Bourla, a Greek citizen of Jewish descent, dozens of times in order to secure the agreement.
Israel paid an inflated price for the vaccines from Pfizer – a decision that appears to have been vindicated by hindsight, as it helped speed up the arrival of the shots.
The pharmaceutical giant had a great interest in the agreement with Israel for other reasons. Israel’s efficient health maintenance organizations and the large amount of medical data from the HMOs and Health Ministry made Israel the ideal place for leading the global vaccination project. Israel's small population with a generally positive attitude toward vaccination was also attractive to Pfizer.
As both Pfizer and the Health Ministry predicted, the Israeli vaccination campaign ha been a success, which and producers view as an opportunity to market their vaccine further. Israel's partial reopening of the economy under the protection of the vaccine serves as a test for other countries that are still deliberating over which vaccine to buy. The Israeli example can prove that Pfizer’s inoculation is effective, safe and enables a quick economic recovery.
Netanyahu's latest campaign prop
Bourla’s visit comes at a very politically sensitive time. In the three previous elections, all held in the past two years, Netanyahu used his allies to improve his position in the eyes of Israeli voters.
He took pride in his close relations with former U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and aided his reelection bid with dramatic diplomatic actions.
In past election cycles, America recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, while Netanyahu leveraged his relationship with Putin to secure the return of the remains of IDF soldier Zecharia Baumel from Syria, and the release of Naama Issachar who was arrested in Moscow for drug possession.
With Trump out of the picture, and likely unable to host Putin in Israel, Netanyahu intends on leveraging Bourla’s visit for his own political needs.
Israel's Channel 12 News reported last week that Bourla will arrive on March 8, not long before the March 23 election. The next stage of the government’s plan to reopen the economy is scheduled for the day before the visit, and will include reopening schools for all grades, including 7th through 10th grades in cities with lower levels of infection.
The pace of the spread of the British COVID strain has disrupted Netanyahu’s original plan, which was to declare victory over the coronavirus and an almost full return to normal just before the election. But the success of the vaccination campaign, alongside the controlled reopening of the economy, could enable Netanyahu to present an image of partial victory. Bourla’s visit, which has scientific and business purposes, could serve Netanyahu quite well given the timing.
This development has greatly troubled a group of scientists, educators and businesspeople in Israel who are not fans of Netanyahu. This group views Bourla’s visit as an improper intervention in the Israeli election, which he has been dragged into without his knowledge.
One of these scientists is Professor David Harel, an Israel Prize laureate and computer scientist from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, who implored Bourla in a letter to not "carry out his visit to Israel prior to our election" or to make "statements about new Pfizer initiatives here in Israel."
He writes further that "our coming election is so incredibly critical that I find myself gasping for breath, day and night," and that possible Pfizer plans in Israel may "turn out to be a disastrous contribution to the destruction of Israel as a democracy, and indeed as the startup nation, with great contributions to science, medicine and technology."
Harel told Haaretz that he greatly appreciates Pfizer’s scientific achievements, but is pleading with Bourla not to act in any way that would influence the election results.
High tech entrepreneur Orna Berry, the former chief scientist in the Economy and Industry Ministry, sent Bourla a separate letter in which she recommended postponing the visit until after the election. Berry wrote that she was happy to see Pfizer establishing research and manufacturing centers in Israel, but urged Bourla to reconsider the timing of his visit.