Deal for Vaccines Raises Privacy Issues

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, second left, attend the arrival of a plane with a shipment of Pfizer coronavirus vaccines, at Ben Gurion Airport, Sunday. (Motti Millrod/Pool via AP)

The secret of Israel’s success in obtaining early deliveries of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine—a tradeoff for data on the vaccine’s performance—has raised questions of privacy. Exactly what type of information will the pharmaceutical giant be receiving?

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu‏‏ and Health Ministry officials have entered into an agreement with Pfizer that in return for specified quantities of vaccine on a preset schedule, Israel will furnish the company data gathered especially for its experts on the side effects, efficacy, the time it takes to develop antibodies, and so on, according to Globes on Sunday.

Pfizer, for its part, committed to a weekly consignment of hundreds of thousands of vaccination doses, between 100,000 and 500,000, with more than 10 million doses received overall by the middle of March.

To safeguard individual privacy, it was agreed in a phone call with Pfizer exceutives on Friday that no details will be divulged that would enable Pfizer to know the identity of those vaccinated, just their medical records, age and gender etc., for research purposes.

“All the information we’ll give to Pfizer is information that we make available to the public,” Sharon Alroy-Preis, the Health Ministry’s acting head of public health, told Channel 12 news. “How many cases, how many serious cases, how many fatalities, how many vaccinated.”

Alroy-Preis said Pfizer would not receive information on the pre-existing health conditions of those vaccinated, but that data on those who suffered side-effects close to the time of vaccination would be made publicly available and provided to Pfizer.

“There is no risk of invasion of privacy; no private data is being given over,” Alroy-Preis said.

In a statement, Pfizer confirmed that it “will not receive any identifiable individual health information – the ministry of health will only share aggregated epidemiological data.”

However, it was not immediately understood what, then, Pfizer would be getting from the Israeli government in the so-called tradeoff, if the same information will be available to everyone.

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, asked the question in a phone interview with The Times of Israel on Sunday.

“They can get to this data by themselves; they don’t need to have an agreement to reach it, because if I have access to this data, they can also have it,” she said.

Instead, Shwartz Altshuler, said she had a “strong feeling” that a “different kind of data” has been promised to the U.S. pharma giant: personal data rendered anonymized — that is citizens’ medical files from which names, addresses and ID numbers are removed.

This data would have “your blood type, your medical history, maybe you were hospitalized, maybe you went through a procedure you want kept private, maybe you have mental illness — all your medical records,” lacking only the identifying details, she said.

“The prime minister must publish immediately what was written in the agreement with Pfizer,” she demanded.

The Prime Minister’s Office has so far declined to comment on the matter.

On Sunday evening, Channel 12 reported that Israel used the contract with Moderna, a Pfizer competitor, to leverage its negotiations with Pfizer.

Israel has promised to make Pfizer its primary vaccine, thereby securing the large supplies on a fixed schedule.

The report said a deal with Moderna to push forward the arrival of its first vaccine doses was a pressure tactic in the negotiations with Pfizer.

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