A year ago, the world was in a frantic dash to develop a vaccine that would finally put an end to the crippling lockdowns and restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer was among the first to announce the successful development of such a vaccine, and nations rushed to put in their orders.
Somehow, the tiny Jewish state was able to procure more than enough doses to inoculate the entire population.
Many, if not most Israelis credited then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the achievement. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla explained in an interview with the Financial Times last week that Bibi was a big part of the equation, but the Israeli leader’s persistence wasn’t the whole story.
There wasn’t time to put the COVID-19 vaccine through the years-long, rigorous trial period most other vaccines must undergo. Nor was it entirely necessary. Scientists had been working on coronavirus vaccines for years already, given that COVID-19 was by no means the first appearance of this type of virus (think SARS and MERS).
Still, there was a lack of firm data that could be quickly remedied by a relatively small nation rapidly inoculating the majority of its population.
Israel fit the bill in that its population numbers just 9 million and the vast majority of citizens were eager to be vaccinated and move on with life. More importantly, as Bourla explained, this “test case” nation needed to have highly-efficient electronic medical record-keeping. Israel ticked all the boxes, and so agreed to trade medical data related to the virus in exchange for guarantees on vaccine dose supply.
But Netanyahu was the catalyst.
“The biggest thing that became clear was Bibi was on top of everything, he knew everything,” said Bourla. “He called me 30 times, asking: ‘What about young people . . . what are you doing about the South African variant?’”
Bourla said much the same back in March, when he told Israel’s Channel 12 that “I was talking with several heads of state. I spoke with your prime minister, he convinced me that Israel is the place with the right conditions. I was impressed, frankly, with the obsession of your prime minister. He called me 30 times.”
In his Financial Times interview, the Pfizer CEO added that he had no doubt Netanyahu’s chief concern was for the people of Israel, “but I’m also sure he was thinking: ‘It could help me politically.’”
When the interviewer suggested that Bibi had miscalculated given that his successful vaccination drive didn’t prevent him from losing power after the March 23 election, Bourla responded, “Maybe. But he did it very well.”