Israel's Health Ministry deputy D-G: Balance key in COVID-19 response

Grotto: No problem sharing information with Pfizer

Prof. Itamar Grotto (photo credit: FLASH90)
Prof. Itamar Grotto
(photo credit: FLASH90)
“In another year or two we will look back and say we did things excellently, or we will say it was done as badly as it could have been done,” Health Ministry Deputy Director-General Prof. Itamar Grotto said Monday.
Speaking at the annual conference of legal clinics at Bar-Ilan University, he said the key word in discussing the coronavirus crisis was balance.
The theme of the conference was the social consequences of the pandemic.
“We, the gatekeepers, had to face off against the political bodies to make decisions together,” Grotto said. “We had to find the balance in what we did... At the end of the day, [those] most hurt by the crisis, both in terms of health and economics, were the weakest populations.”
Even in the Health Ministry, “we could look at the crisis just in terms of deaths and hospitalizations, or we could look at the full cost-benefit to society of imposing regulations,” he said.
The beginning of the crisis, when no government was in session, “was the easiest time [to] announce a state of emergency and to make the health and legal decisions about the difficult questions of controlling the virus that violated privacy and deprived people of their rights,” Grotto said.
Among the issues were whether to restrict freedom of assembly in demonstrations, whether to close the skies to travelers and when and how to force people who were infected with or exposed to the virus to go into quarantine, he said.
“There was a tension between the need to stop the virus and to keep society open,” Grotto said. “To put someone in isolation is to take away his freedom,” and such actions should not be taken lightly.
Asked whether it is ethical to share data about patients with Pfizer, he said he did not think there was any problem with sharing information with the pharmaceutical company. “We didn’t give individual data on patients,” he added.
The issue is being investigated by the Helsinki Committee, which is tasked with overseeing human medical trials in Israel.
Regarding Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) participation in contract tracing, which raised concerns about privacy violations, Grotto said: “It would have been possible to have been even more precise, but that would have led to greater violations of privacy.”
Even seemingly simple decisions, such as how to test people to allow them into the “green zone” of Eilat, where tourism was allowed at certain stages of the pandemic when the hospitality industry was closed in other areas, involved difficult legalities, he said. Experts had to decide whether it was ethical to give people entering Eilat rapid tests, when there was not enough of this technology to go around, so they would not have to wait hours or days to enter Eilat, he added.
The green passport for those who have received two doses of the vaccine, which would allow them to attend cultural events and receive other perks, was not “a magic solution,” Grotto said, adding that many European countries and the World Health Organization were questioning the use of such a document to incentivize people to take the vaccine.
The truth is that no one can truly evaluate Israel’s response to the virus yet, he said.