A panel of officials and experts from a handful of Israeli government ministries and health organizations is to meet on Wednesday to begin planning the country’s coronavirus vaccination policy as the nation awaits word on when it will receive the first batch, and how many doses can be procured.
On Tuesday, the special coronavirus oversight committee in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, held an urgent session to discuss the coming policy.
“Businesses are wondering whether to declare bankruptcy, and people’s lives are hanging in the balance,” lawmaker Yoel Razvosov of the centrist Yesh Atid party told Health Ministry officials. “Whether we’re talking days or weeks until we see the vaccine, as the prime minister claims, or several months, this can determine people’s fate.”
According to the ministry, the panel is expected to present the government in the coming weeks with a specific blueprint regarding the awaited vaccines. Its members are tasked with recommending strategies for distribution and storage, and will also consider ethical and legal questions.
A spokesperson for the ministry further told The Media Line that “when the panel is ready to present its conclusions, they’ll be made known to the general public.”
During his testimony, Dr. Uri Feinstein, head of coronavirus vaccine issues in the ministry’s technological department, told the committee his team “is working extremely hard right now so that everything will be on time. We want to make sure the State of Israel won’t be the one delaying this operation.”
He explained that it will not be a simple process.
“There are no previous specifications for how to do this,” he stated.
“Our aim is to make this [vaccine] available for everyone as soon as possible,” he continued. “That doesn’t mean we’ll be able to do it immediately, but that’s our goal.”
He also noted the “unprecedented, head-spinning pace” at which the vaccines are being developed.
Two weeks ago, the US pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced that initial data from its vaccine’s Phase 3 trial showed it was more than 90% effective. Less than a week later, Moderna announced its own vaccine showed close to 95% efficacy.
Earlier during the pandemic, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu signed an agreement with Moderna for the purchase of its eventual vaccine. After the Pfizer news broke, Netanyahu was quick to announce he had signed a similar deal with Pfizer.
Only later did he admit that the Pfizer contract did not specify penalties in case the company fails to deliver the specified quantities in the agreed timeframes, something indicating a less-than optimal bargaining position by Israel – something that elicited much domestic criticism aimed at the prime minister.
“Promising our citizens that in January we’ll have a vaccine for everyone isn’t accurate, I gather,” MK Yulia Malinovsky of the Yisrael Beitenu party told Feinstein, apparently referencing the Pfizer contract. “Are you okay with this?”
Feinstein admitted that he “could not commit” to a specific date, noting that while the vaccine might be approved for use in the United States in as soon as three weeks, logistic and regulatory issues in Israel could delay its mass distribution for several months.
“Are the rumors and declarations [made by government officials] accurate? If everything goes exactly on schedule, it’s possible. But I can’t guarantee any timelines,” he cautioned.
Prof. Hagai Levin, chair of the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians, was blunter in addressing the committee.
“It’s extremely important that we base ourselves on a professional approach instead of what we hear in the media, which is politically motivated,” he stressed.
“Our aim is to protect the public health,” Levin continued. “We have to avoid the politicization of the issue like we’re seeing in the US. Asking questions and having oversight and conducting open discussion only advances public health.”
Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, director of the Epidemiology and Public Health School at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and a member of the special coronavirus team advising the Health Ministry, agrees with Levin.
“This has to remain professional and not political, otherwise it will hurt public trust,” he told The Media Line. “Leave this to the experts.”
Committee chairwoman Yifat Shasha Biton of the Likud concluded the meeting by saying: “The declarations made by public figures aren’t compatible with the scientific results. We will have to wait… to give the people a fuller picture.”
As to which groups will be the first to be vaccinated, a decision will require additional information.
“We’re still waiting for more numbers,” Davidovitch said.
“Based on our previous discussions, I assume it will most likely be the medical staffs first, and then people at high risk of dying from the virus and personnel who are employed in critical jobs like emergency services and others,” he stated.
“Also, people who have a high rate of exposure – schoolteachers, for instance – will be inoculated relatively early,” he noted.
As for the data being released by the pharmaceutical companies, Davidovitch says the initial figures are far from sufficient for determining the order.
“They are very general, just averages really, not broken down to specific subgroups,” he explained. “If, say, one age group or a certain demographic shows more antibodies, more side effects, this will change our thinking on who will be inoculated first.”