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How Much Can Netanyahu Squeeze the Lemon That Is Pfizer CEO?

Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony Wednesday evening.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony Wednesday evening. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO
Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder

It doesn’t seem Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla can be exploited any more than he has been by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for many weeks now.

It started with the constant reports about conversations with Bourla, and continued with the idea of bringing him to Israel at the height of the election campaign, which was prevented only at the last moment. Then came the CEO’s interview on Channel 12 News in which he said Netanyahu was obsessive and had called him 30 times – a statement that became the high point of Likud and Netanyahu’s election campaign.

Last Wednesday, on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Bourla also starred in the strange speech by the prime minister, who told us how 80 years after the Holocaust, “Fate is bringing together in a rescue mission the prime minister of the State of Israel, which arose from the dust, and the head of Pfizer, which has invented a cure for the coronavirus pandemic that is threatening all of humanity.

“The Holocaust and rebirth were in the background of my conversations with Albert. He is a proud Jew as well as the head of one of the most important companies in the world. I told him from the start that Israel would be an international example in the World War III health battle against the global coronavirus. He was convinced that this is true, and all of us together have proved that it’s true.”

To hear the name of an international corporation and its CEO at a ceremony of communion with the 6 million was particularly jarring, especially because it’s very hard to ignore the political context. Were we hearing the opening speech of Likud’s fifth election campaign?

It has since been reported that Israel isn’t only providing Bourla with personal publicity and eternal glory, it’s offering the country's most prestigious honor: lighting a torch on Mount Herzl as Memorial Day gives way to Independence Day. The person who pushed for that, according to reports, is Transportation Minister Miri Regev, the head of the Ministerial Committee for Symbols and Ceremonies. Bourla turned down the offer and “sufficed” with sending a video.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla speaking in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in February.Credit: Tom Brenner / Reuters

Now I’ll mention something that should be obvious: Bourla, undoubtedly a warmhearted Jew, is the CEO of a pharmaceutical company, a businessman whose job is to increase the company’s profits. Bourla wasn’t doing Israel a favor when he sealed the vaccine deal with it, he was acting as a businessman in a business setting. Israel didn’t receive the vaccines from Bourla as an aid package based on his Judaism and warm heart, it paid good money.

Meanwhile, Bourla and Pfizer are in the middle of further negotiations with Israel, which have included threats by the company that if the money isn’t received soon the agreement is in danger. That’s how it works in business.

Moreover, no less than what Israel gained from the Pfizer deal (and there’s no question that Pfizer’s vaccine is responsible for Israel’s excellent situation), Pfizer gained from the brilliant agreement cooked up with Israel to create a “model country.”

Thanks to a rare combination of a modest-sized population, a computerized health system, an excellent public response and the tremendous logistical capability of Israel’s health maintenance organizations, Pfizer was able to validate, in a population of millions, the findings of a clinical study that had been carried out on tens of thousands. Articles in the world’s leading science journals, written by independent Israeli scientists, proved that the vaccine is safe, effective and capable of sending a country toward herd immunity. This achievement is worth billions for Pfizer, giving it a tremendous competitive advantage, and it shouldn’t be ignored.

Finally, Bourla is a CEO, a businessman, not a scientist. He didn't invent and develop the technology that’s making us all freer and healthier. His job is logistical and business-related, and his obligation is to his company’s shareholders.

The coronavirus has brought great economic benefits to Pfizer, to say the least. It has also benefited Bourla himself, who according to reports has sold shares in the company worth millions. That’s fine, because these profits stem from a lifesaving product, but it’s not philanthropy either.

In that connection it’s always nice to recall another Jew, Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine in the 1950s in the United States. When Salk was asked about who owned the patent, he replied: “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

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