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Why Pfizer's CEO Would Be Wise to Delay His Visit to Israel Until After the Election

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Health Minister Yuli Edelstein at a vaccination center in Sderot last month.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Health Minister Yuli Edelstein at a vaccination center in Sderot last month.Credit: Liron Moldovan

Israelis are indebted to Pfizer Inc. – but not for the reasons you think. It’s not the medical qualities and curing faculties of its COVID-19 vaccine, nor is it about Lipitor, Viagra, Lyrica or Ibrance.

It’s mostly about Advil.

Looking at their political system and politicians ahead of yet another election on March 23, Israelis are uniquely thankful for Advil.

Yes, Pfizer makes that too.

It is understandable why the chairman and CEO of Pfizer, Dr. Albert Bourla, wants to visit Israel. The country – both the government and the scientific and medical communities – will enthusiastically welcome him. Many are looking forward to exploring the possibility of R&D projects and a Pfizer production line in Israel.

Which is why he can and should come any day after, but certainly not before, March 23. 

It defies logic why Bourla, the CEO of a world-leading biopharmaceutical company worth nearly $190 billion, would visit Israel on March 8, 15 days before the Knesset election. To put it bluntly, Pfizer will become a political prop, and the visit will be politicized with high-octane intensity. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu no longer has Donald Trump as some brother-in-arms campaign asset, so why not use Pfizer?

Bourla will feature prominently in the prime minister’s campaign as an almost equal partner to Mr. Netanyahu’s historic feat: the successful Pfizer-BioNTech-Fosun Pharma COVID-19 vaccine.

It’s as if it wasn’t Pfizer’s state-of-the-art research and scientists, nor its high-quality testing, nor the complex and effective supply chains and production processes. It’s all about Mr. Netanyahu. When you say “vaccine,” you don’t say “Pfizer” – you say “Netanyahu.”

Bourla will be welcomed to Israel like royalty: a joint visit by POTUS, Putin, the Pope and Pfizer combined. The four Ps.

Not just because of the date proximity, but because Pfizer is the campaign.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla preparing to testify before the Senate two years ago.Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Mr. Netanyahu will not only politicize science; he will politicize Pfizer. He is repeatedly sending a simple message: Had it not been for his close relations with Dr. Bourla, who knows if Israel would have had vaccines by now. And, by extension, only he can get the additional quantities needed next year for booster shots or a possible second round of vaccinations.

In an interview last week on NBC, Bourla said: “I believe Israel has become the world’s lab right now, because they are using only our vaccine ... and they vaccinated a very big part of their population, so we can study both economy and health indices.”

Dr. Bourla is right, of course. Israel is a testing lab, or a proving ground that Pfizer knew in advance would be conducive and effective as a sample. To begin with, the population size is relatively small – 9.3 million – and heterogeneic in terms of both age and ethnic origin, thus providing an ideal scientific sample.

Secondly, Israel has a very effective and modernized infrastructure of four major Health Maintenance Organizations (the kupot holim clinics). All citizens’ medical records are digitized, readily accessible and easily portable between the Health Ministry, hospitals, the HMOs and physicians’ clinics. The information flow is immediate and almost flawless.

Thirdly, Israel has a very small and arguably insignificant “anti-vaxxer” constituency.

These guaranteed the highly successful vaccination process – from acquisition to distribution, to setting up vaccination centers and administering the vaccine. It makes political sense for Mr. Netanyahu to want to take credit for the vaccine rollout, irrespective of Pfizer’s vested interest in selling and observing the process for its own needs.

But Mr. Netanyahu turned the vaccination program into the central theme of his campaign. An extraterrestrial listening to Mr. Netanyahu over the last two months would be excused for thinking he conceived of the vaccine, developed it, has a patent for the formula, distributed the doses, made sure Israel has enough, convinced everyone to be inoculated, vows to buy 36 million more from Pfizer, plays “vaccine diplomacy” with needy countries, and now expects to be electorally repaid for his clairvoyance.

What is less understandable is why Pfizer would willingly become an exploited prop in this campaign. A visit scheduled for March 8 can easily and conveniently be moved to March 24.

Two weeks will not diminish the respect Pfizer and Dr. Albert Bourla deserve and will undoubtedly receive.

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