The deal: Vaccines for Israelis' data

Israel's Pfizer deal drives quick rollout, and privacy worries.

NPR ,

Vaccination
Vaccination
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How has tiny Israel beat out bigger countries on COVID-19 vaccinations, securing a steady stream of vials and inoculating a larger share of its citizenry than any other nation?

Israel paid a premium, locked in an early supply of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines and struck a unique deal: vaccines for data.

The nation of some 9 million promised Pfizer a swift vaccine rollout, along with data from Israel's centralized trove of medical statistics to study "whether herd immunity is achieved after reaching a certain percentage of vaccination coverage in Israel," according to their agreement.

Israel's small size and technologically advanced public health system offer an attractive model for Pfizer to demonstrate the impact of the vaccine on an entire population. Pfizer has not signed a similar agreement with any other country, company spokesperson Jerica Pitts says.

The vaccines-for-data trade-off has sparked impassioned debate in Israel among data privacy experts, biotech researchers and the country's own medical ethics board, weighing the potential benefits of mining the population for vaccine insights against the potential abuse of millions of personal medical records.

"We need to understand that [Israel's agreement with Pfizer] is going to be one of the, I would say, widest medical experiments on humans at the 21st century," says the Israel Democracy Institute's Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a data privacy advocate and a leading voice questioning the Pfizer data deal.

Some Israeli commentators have accused Shwartz Altshuler of seeking to spoil a successful national campaign that the government has branded with the hashtag "VacciNation." She and many other Israeli experts tend to concur that quick access to the vaccine is Israel's most important priority.

Israel is already reporting promising initial results of the vaccination campaign. The Health Ministry said Thursday that out of a group of 715,425 Israelis fully vaccinated, only 317 — 0.04% — got infected with the virus at least one week after their second shot, and 16 were hospitalized with serious symptoms.

Close to a third of the population has received at least one shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and about 17% received both shots, far beyond any other country. Israel aims to be the first to vaccinate most of its citizenry against COVID-19 before elections are held March 23.



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