Moshe Bar Siman Tov
Moshe Bar Siman TovFlash90

In the United Kingdom, the state’s health service is getting ready to start mass vaccinations for coronavirus by the end of 2020, with around 10 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine expected to arrive within weeks, pending regulatory approval. However, in Israel, the estimate is that the coming winter will be vaccine-less, and according to former Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov, the public sector is already making the appropriate preparations.

Speaking to Yediot Aharonot, Bar Siman Tov acknowledged that, “Winter is going to be our biggest challenge and it is our top priority. There isn’t going to be a vaccine for coronavirus this winter.”

Asked to comment on Pfizer’s announcement earlier this week that its vaccine, now in Phase 3 trials, confers protection on 90% of those who receive it, he was cautiously optimistic. “We certainly hope this will prove to be a game-changer. I hope future reports continue to be as good, but for the time being, it’s not part of our equation.”

Bar Siman Tov’s caution has been echoed by health experts across the world, who pointed out certain omissions in Pfizer’s trials that would need to be addressed before conclusions can be drawn. On Tuesday, Prof. Richard Horton, editor of the prestigious Lancet medical journal, noted in a webinar given to the University of Haifa Board of Trustees that there are “question marks surrounding the vaccine, such as the impact on different groups and age brackets in the population.”

Pfizer’s report, based on data that has yet to be released, makes no distinction between the impact of the vaccine on younger or older people, nor does it reveal the extent to which hospitalization rates are affected by the effects of the vaccine. It also fails to account for asymptomatic cases, as trial volunteers were only tested for the coronavirus if they exhibited symptoms.

Furthermore, the vaccine needs to be stored at a temperature of minus 70 Celsius, meaning in practice that it can only be transported packed in “dry ice,” making the logistics of a mass global distribution extremely problematic. At around $26 per dose, it is also among the more expensive of the vaccines under development, with the product being developed by AstraZeneca, for example, tentatively priced at a fraction of that, at around $3.

Horton added that he was concerned that an overly hasty marketing of a vaccine that might later prove problematic could damage public confidence in the vaccination program itself, and also expressed the view that governments should be coordinating their efforts not only in vaccine research but also in distribution, calling the lack of communication “one of the main problems in dealing with the crisis.”