Israel’s jabs-for-data deal – which saw a world-beating vaccine roll-out in return for patient details – sparks privacy concerns
- Israel agreed to hand over data about vaccinations in groups of the population
- Pfizer says the deal is the only such agreement it has made with any country
- AstraZeneca spokesman said he was not aware of the firm making similar deals
Israel’s world-leading vaccination drive has come under fire over a ‘data-for-doses’ deal struck with Pfizer in which the country pledged to share medical information with the pharma giant.
The Israeli health ministry has agreed to hand over data about vaccinations among different population groups to help assess how quickly herd immunity is achieved.
In return, Pfizer agreed to keep up a delivery rate fast enough so that herd immunity can be reached ‘as soon as possible’.
Pfizer says it is the only such deal it has made with any country, while an AstraZeneca spokesman said he was not aware of the British-Swedish company making any similar agreements.
Israel has refused to say whether it paid a premium to get hold of the Pfizer jabs, but reports have claimed that it has paid as much as double the usual rate.
While the vaccine stockpile has allowed Israel to leap ahead in the global race – with nearly 20 per cent of the population already getting the full two doses – the deal with Pfizer has raised privacy concerns among experts.
People wait in line to get a Covid-19 vaccine in Jerusalem last month, with Israel leading the global vaccine race after signing a ‘data-for-doses’ deal with Pfizer
Israel’s high-quality health system – ranked as the fifth-most efficient in the world in a 2020 – study is widely regarded as one of the reasons for its successful rollout.
But it is also regarded as providing high-quality data, making it an attractive place for pharmaceutical firms to do business.
Israel’s health ministry last month released a redacted copy of the ‘real-world epidemiological evidence collaboration agreement’ that it signed with Pfizer.
Pfizer spokeswoman Jerica Pitts told NPR that the US-based firm had not signed a similar deal with any other nation.
The Pfizer deal calls on Israel’s health ministry to provide data such as weekly numbers of vaccinations by age group and other demographic sub-groups.
It says that Israel is ‘relying on… the product delivery rate by Pfizer to allow maintaining vaccination rate sufficient to achieving herd immunity and enough data as soon as possible’.
Pfizer agreed that the ‘viability and success’ of the project is ‘dependent on the rate and scope of the vaccinations in Israel’, meaning it must remain well stocked.
The agreement adds that the data collection is ‘highly beneficial’ in order to ‘evaluate whether herd immunity protection’ is observed during the rollout.
But some experts disagree, warning that it could lead to private medical details being identified and voicing fears of the trove of data being hacked.
Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a data privacy specialist at the Israel Democracy Institute think-tank, was among those to voice concern about a cyber-attack.
‘Your insurance company will know all your medical history. Your employer will know it,’ she said, describing the potential consequences of a successful hack.
‘The political campaigner who would like to convince you to vote for someone would know everything about your medical history, not to say about people who would like to marry your children.’
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, pictured getting a dose of the vaccine, described the deal as providing ‘statistical data that will help develop strategies for defeating the coronavirus’
In a statement issued after the deal was released, she described it as ‘one of the most extensive studies of humans in the 21st century’.
Israel and Pfizer both insist that the data handed over will be anonymous and cover demographic groups rather than individuals.
But experts warn that some groups may be small enough that they can be traced back to individuals, for example exposing people as HIV-positive.
Dr Eitan Friedman, the head of an Israeli medical ethics board, said he and his colleagues had requested further details about the agreement.
He said that if Pfizer is essentially carrying out a new clinical study in Israel, it should have been approved by his board.
Numerous media reports have claimed that Israel paid Pfizer well above the market price to get supplies of the vaccine.
One official said last month that Israel was ‘paying around $30 per vaccine dose, or around twice the price abroad’.
The health ministry has declined to comment on those reports.
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu described the deal as providing ‘statistical data that will help develop strategies for defeating the coronavirus’.
Israel’s arrangement with Pfizer would help make it ‘the first country in the world to emerge from the coronavirus,’ he predicted last month.
Although mired in corruption charges and years of political stalemate, Netanyahu hopes to ride the success of the vaccine programme to victory in a March election.
A mass vaccination centre in Tel Aviv was among the places where the Israeli immunisation drive was ramping up in January just as many countries were only getting started
Israel signed a deal for eight million Pfizer vaccines in November, and has also had deals in place with Moderna and AstraZeneca since before any of the jabs were approved.
It has also divided up its vaccine stocks to get them to remote areas, and its health workers pioneered the method of extracting an extra dose from each vial.
According to official figures, nearly 35 per cent of Israel’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, with 20 per cent already getting both.
Health data in Israel is collected through four health maintenance organisations (HMOs), non-profit groups that cover the country’s nine million people.
They maintain meticulous information about their patients and have been credited with rapidly generating vaccination lists ordered by priority group.
But Israel’s government also maintains a centralised healthcare database known as ‘wagtail’ which supplements HMO data with information from public hospitals and other sources.
Altshuler, the data privacy specialist, described Israel’s digitised medical data as a ‘very unique asset’.
‘Israel can offer Pfizer, within a month or six weeks, data on a couple of million people,’ she said.
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