After Pressure, Pfizer CEO Postpones Israel Visit Until After Election

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Biden listens to Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla speak at the Pfizer Kalamazoo Manufacturing Site in Michigan, last month.
Biden listens to Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla speak at the Pfizer Kalamazoo Manufacturing Site in Michigan, last month. Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI - AFP

The CEO of Pfizer, the manufacturer of the main coronavirus vaccine used in Israel, has delayed his planned visit to Israel following warnings that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may exploit Albert Bourla's visit for his campaign ahead of Israel's March 23 election.

"We remain interested in meeting the scientific leaders and other important stakeholders who were vital to the successful COVID-19 vaccination program in Israel, "according to an official statement issued by Pfizer's spokesperson in Israel.

"Any company visit will most likely to occur in late spring or early summer at the earliest, once travel conditions improve and COVID related restrictions are eased, "the statement added.

Achrayut Leumit, or National Responsibility in Hebrew – a public-benefit corporation – that urged Bourla not to visit Israel before the election and warned him that it would illegally help Netanyahu's campaign, welcomed the Pfizer CEO's decision to postpone the trip.

"Achrayut Leumit welcomes the right and educated decision by Pfizer's CEO not to take part in illegal electioneering and not to arrive in Israel at this time."

"The only one to blame for the cancelation of the visit is Prime Minister Netanyahu, who sought to make Bourla come to Israel two weeks before the election while employing wrong and forbidden electioneering. It's good that Israeli democracy was saved from such a thing."

"Achrayut Leumit will welcome the arrival of Pfizer's CEO after the election and appreciates the company's great contribution to the vaccination of Israel's citizens," the statement read.   

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Last week, senior Israeli scientists, doctors and academics wrote letters urging the CEO Albert Bourla of Pfizer to postpone his visit due to the possible political ramifications.

Albert Bourla was scheduled to arrive in Israel on March 8 at the invitation of Netanyahu. The trip had 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.

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 successfully produce and test the first vaccine.

Netanyahu said two weeks ago that he and Bourla would discuss the possibility of setting up a Pfizer production plant and R&D center in Israel. 

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.

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 has been a success, which and producers view as an opportunity to market their vaccine further. 

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