The Health Ministry has released dozens of files containing the data it has shared with the coronavirus vaccine maker Pfizer.
The data was given to the Movement for Freedom of Information, which had submitted a request to receive it back in January.
Nevertheless, the parts of the ministry’s agreement with Pfizer that weren’t made public in January were not included in the data. In a cover letter that accompanied the files, the ministry said these sections – which include all the clauses relating to how much Israel paid for the vaccines – must remain confidential.
A review of the files shows that the data given to Pfizer was general and did not include details about individual patients. It was also identical to the information the ministry has previously made public.
It includes data on incidence of the virus, the number of serious cases, hospitalizations, people on ventilators, deaths and vaccination rates, all segmented by various demographic factors like age and gender. This data was used to determine the effectiveness of the vaccine.
The ministry promised to give Pfizer such data on a weekly basis as part of the deal it signed with the company to purchase the vaccines. However, the agreement stipulated that the data would be general, meaning it would not include identifying details about any individual patient. It also stated that if such identifying details were accidentally included, the company would treat them as confidential and return the data.
The cover letter accompanying the files said the ministry is negotiating with various companies to buy additional coronavirus vaccines, so as to ensure that vaccines are available to the entire population in the future. Making certain sections of the Pfizer agreement public “could sabotage these processes and undermine the Health Ministry’s ability to do its job,” it added
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Ministry officials said they are examining the possibility of releasing further details about the agreement. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that most of the confidential sections will be made public any time soon, if ever.
One thing that is clear, however, is that the ministry’s relationship with Pfizer is unusually close. And sources in the health system said this relationship isn’t unidirectional because Pfizer has also been unofficially sharing data from its clinical trials.
This close relationship has been somewhat controversial, a controversy intensified by the ministry’s refusal to publish the entire agreement with Pfizer. One camp argues that individuals’ privacy is perfectly safe and the data-sharing can help humanity as a whole. The other warns that it’s impossible to protect this information completely while using it to conduct studies with significant practical implications.
The dispute seems to stem mainly from each side’s priorities. The first camp emphasizes the need to derive valuable insights from large amounts of medical data, while the second stresses the need to protect patients and their sensitive medical information.
Nevertheless, transparency is essential to bolstering confidence that the data is in fact protected. In this regard, making the Pfizer agreement public was a positive step. Yet the contract itself raises some questions about the scope of the data to be shared, how much it endangers patients’ privacy and what more can be done to ensure that Israelis’ medical data isn’t misused.