Pfizer halts corona vaccine shipments to Israel after country fails to pay

A shipment of 700,000 doses was expected to arrive in Israel on Sunday but was halted until further notice.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein meet a shipment of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines at Ben-Gurion Airport on January 10. (photo credit: MOTTI MILLROD/REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein meet a shipment of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines at Ben-Gurion Airport on January 10.
Pfizer has halted shipments of coronavirus vaccines to Israel in outrage over the country failing to transfer payment for the last 2.5 million doses it supplied to the country, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
Senior officials at Pfizer have said they are concerned that the government-in-transition will not pay up and the company does not want to be taken advantage of. They said that they do not understand how such a situation can occur in an organized country.
Army Radio reported that Pfizer called Israel a “banana republic.”
A shipment of 700,000 doses was expected to arrive in Israel on Sunday but was delayed until further notice.
Pfizer told the Post that the company 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," the company said in a statement.
The Health Ministry would not comment on the statement. 
Israel paid for the first 10 million vaccines it received to manage the majority of its mass vaccination campaign. But when Israel started to run short in February, an agreement was made between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla to supply the country with the additional doses it needed.
The Post was informed that the government never paid for the last 2.5 million.
So far, Israel has spent NIS 2.6 billion on coronavirus vaccines, it was revealed last month at a meeting of the Knesset Finance Committee. In general, the government does not discuss the cost of vaccines due to confidentiality agreements with the companies. It is understood that Israel paid much more per dose than any other country.
The Health Ministry had been putting pressure on the government to approve the purchase of an additional NIS 3.5 billion - more than 30 million vaccines - even before Passover and the government was set to convene last Monday. However, the meeting was postponed indefinitely due to a conflict between Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz.
Gantz canceled the meeting because of Netanyahu’s refusal to approve the permanent appointment of a justice minister. His term as acting justice minister ended on April 2, three months after he took the post in place of Avi Nissenkorn, who had resigned.
A permanent appointment has still not been made.
HEALTH MINISTER Yuli Edelstein spoke with Gantz on Sunday night to try to persuade him of the importance of moving forward with the payment and purchase.
A spokeswoman for Gantz told the Post that "even though the prime minister has done a lot to hurt the functioning of the government," the alternate prime minister will "do nothing that will affect the people of Israel's health by denying the vaccines."
Nonetheless, sources in Gantz’s office stressed that if this meeting is so urgent for Edelstein “all he has to do is call PM Netanyahu and ask him to appoint a justice minister.”
Gantz’s office further claimed that the purchase of the 2.5 million vaccines was already approved and that any delay in payment was on behalf of the Health Ministry. 
The source said the country had already purchased 27 million doses - which includes the Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines - “that should suffice for the near future.” The source said procurement of additional vaccines further down the line requires due process and deliberation.
Meanwhile, health officials are concerned that Israel will miss its opportunity to purchase the vaccines, which are sought after by countries around the world.
Coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash told the Post that if Israel does not speedily sign the necessary contracts, it may not be able to vaccinate its children or provide citizens with booster shots against vaccine-resistant variants, or if immunity wanes.
“There is real competition to buy vaccines by countries around the world,” Ash said in an interview last week. “We want to reserve our place at the top of the list and not be pushed down to the end so that we cannot get them [vaccines] when they are most needed.”
PFIZER ANNOUNCED that its vaccine was safe and effective against the virus for children in this age cohort, and is now seeking FDA approval. Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy said over the weekend that Israeli adolescents could be vaccinated as early as May.
The vaccination campaign has enabled Israel to open up its economy over the past month, including sending more children back to school on Monday.
The Health Ministry agreed to allow children in third grade to learn without capsules. Older students are still in capsules, which means that they still cannot go to school full time. 
Ash told Ynet that the ministry wants to monitor whether there is a rise in infection after removing capsules in third grade. If not, then the rest of the country’s elementary school students will be able to study in full within the next two weeks.
The ministry has said it wants to roll out rapid testing for middle school students before allowing them to learn in their regular classrooms.
The Health Ministry reported on Monday that the number of patients in serious condition continued to drop and only 0.6% of the tests performed the day before returned a positive result, marking the lowest rate since May 2020. However, at the same time, the reproduction rate rose to 0.71 - a figure that has not been recorded for a month.
Some 195 new coronavirus cases were identified on Sunday out of 32,886 tested.
Although Israel consistently performs fewer tests on Sundays than other weekdays, the rate of the tests returning positive was the lowest since last May.
Moreover, the number of serious patients dropped to 323. They were 441 on the previous Monday and 543 the week before that.
Some 6,245 people have died of COVID-19 in Israel since the beginning of the pandemic.
The government is expected to convene a special cabinet meeting about the vaccines in the coming days. Sources in the Health Ministry say they are hoping that it won’t be too late.