Pfizer and Moderna have frozen COVID-19 vaccine deliveries to Israel. The companies are furious at a delay in payment, resulting from disagreements between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz that have postponed the approval of the required budget.
Pfizer has also threatened that it will deliver a shipment of 700,000 doses intended for Israel to other countries and give others priority over Israel, which has been at the forefront of the vaccination effort globally.
The large sum required to purchase the additional vaccines, ranging in the billions of shekels, requires approval by the cabinet. Gantz is refusing to convene the ministers to approve the payments until the prime minister nominates a justice minister; the post has been vacant since April 1.
The spokesperson for Blue and White, Gantz’s party, told The Media Line, “Vaccines scheduled to arrive in Israel now have nothing to do with the government meeting. The cabinet meeting on vaccines being delayed centers on the approval of procurement of vaccines for 2022. If this meeting is so urgent for Minister [of Health Yuli] Edelstein, all he has to do is call PM Netanyahu and ask him to appoint a justice minister.”
Edelstein is a member of the prime minister’s Likud party.
“We have already purchased 27 million vaccines that should suffice for the near future. The procurement of additional vaccines further down the line requires due process and deliberation. Since the PM says he is adamant about acquiring them, he could just handle the appointment of the just as urgent justice minister and the government will then convene swiftly,” the Blue and White representative said.
“We want to approve [the purchase of vaccines] because it is a national necessity, and we want a justice minister because that is a national necessity of no lesser importance,” the spokesperson stressed.
Netanyahu is on trial on corruption charges, a process that has plunged the country and its political arena into turmoil. Gantz acted as interim justice minister until April 1, but an interim minister who can only serve for three months.
The prime minister denied comment on the vaccine purchase delays and the reasons behind them.
Health Ministry spokesperson Anat Danieli Lev told The Media Line that “we are waiting for the cabinet’s decision to approve the purchase of vaccine doses. Without those agreements, we will of course not be able to purchase additional vaccines.”
Israeli officials close to the matter confirmed to The Media Line that Gantz has used his veto right, which he holds under the coalition agreement, to block the cabinet from meeting. However, they say that some of the delayed vaccines are intended for use in vaccinating Israeli youth, which Prof. Hezi Levi, the Health Ministry’s director-general, has estimated will begin next month.
The Media Line reached out to Pfizer and Moderna for comment. No response was received from Moderna by the time of publication.
Pfizer Israel spokesperson said the company does not comment on sales agreements and vaccine deliveries. However, in a statement sent to The Media Line, the company said, “Pfizer has completed all deliveries to Israel under its initial agreement to provide its COVID-19 vaccine, signed in November 2020. The company is currently working with the Israeli government to update the agreement, to supply additional vaccines to the country. While this work continues, shipments may be adjusted.”
Disagreements between Netanyahu and Gantz come as the former has been trying to form a government, following Israel’s fourth round of elections in two years. Netanyahu currently lacks a majority in the Knesset that would allow him to form a functioning government, a sign of the persistent standstill that has plagued Israeli politics recently. Gantz and his party oppose Netanyahu’s continued rule.
Israel has vaccinated almost 5 million (more than 53%) of its citizens with two doses of vaccine, mostly Pfizer and some Moderna, and has seen a sharp decline in infections, allowing it to reopen much of the country. However, the country intends to soon vaccinate those aged 12 to 15, and also wishes to secure additional doses in case supplementary vaccinations are required to boost immunization down the road.
Additionally, approximately 1 million Israelis who are eligible for the vaccine have yet to come in for inoculation.
The country’s coronavirus czar, Prof. Nachman Ash, told 103 FM Radio on Sunday morning that “looking forward, we are at risk because we believe we will need additional rounds of vaccination. We don’t know when, and if we are at the back of the line to get the vaccines, we will definitely be in deep trouble.”
Prof. Hagai Levine, an epidemiologist at the Hebrew University’s School of Public Health and former chairman of the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians, is more careful in raising the alarm. He believes the central issue with Israel’s battle with the pandemic lies elsewhere.
“The root of the problem is the politicization of professional procedures,” he told The Media Line. There is no transparency regarding the situation in Israel, Levine explained.
“We don’t know how many vaccines have arrived in Israel; we don’t know how many vaccines will arrive in Israel. We don’t know if these reports are true; everything is revealed in unclear information leakages. … Once again, we’re seeing the politicization of a professional matter, which is unneeded and harmful,” he said.
With Israel’s professional community unclear on the country’s situation, it is impossible to gauge its future needs. “I want the debate to be an open, honest, transparent professional discussion – then we can reach a consensus” about what the country requires, Levine said.
This situation is compounded by the uncertainty regarding key questions that would influence the required number of doses. For example, “with regards to the need for a third dose, the truth is that we currently don’t know enough,” he said. “It’s possible that we will need it, but there’s no evidence for that right now.”
Levine stresses that he supports buying more vaccines. “We should have a surplus,” he said. He is also for vaccinating low-risk populations, such as 12- to 15-year-olds. However, “they tell us that is what will prevent future lockdowns, and that is obviously a lie! You don’t need additional lockdowns no matter what,” Levine said.
“Can additional vaccines save lives? Yes, it is possible that they will save lives, and that’s why you need to have a professional discussion and purchase the number of vaccines necessary – according to professional considerations,” he continued.
Importantly, the derailed professional discussion has driven the country away from issues more central to overcoming the pandemic, such as vaccinating the remaining 1 million Israelis, some of whom are in high-risk age groups, the professor said. “What is truly needed right now are efforts to vaccinate the target population in Israel that have yet to be vaccinated and have a vaccine dose waiting for them.”
For now, at least, Israel doesn’t lack vaccine doses, the professor said. And the country has the money to buy additional shipments.
So the focus should be on pushing forward with issues closer at hand, such as the inoculation of at-risk populations and Palestinians, “and this focus on future purchases appears like a smokescreen that hides the true problems to consider,” Levine said.