Israel's virus vaccination campaign could be one big clinical trial for Pfizer

Opinion: While Israel's nationwide vaccination campaign is a monumental success, the government's willingness to provide U.S. drugmaker with personal data on Israelis violates its obligation toward the public
Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler|
In our youth, every Israeli child had a small, private yellow notebook in which the details of every vaccine they ever received were meticulously written down. With time, these yellow notebooks were digitized and are now being kept on a secure server belonging to the Health Ministry.
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  • The ministry, in collaboration with Israel’s hospitals and HMOs, have all sorts of patient details in their disposal, all of which are kept in various databases under a digitized lock and key.
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    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receiving Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine
    (Photo: Tomer Applebaum)
    Now, in the midst of Israel’s third pandemic-induced nationwide lockdown, the Health Ministry is seeking to gather information about the country's coronavirus patients, including data from health funds, information about past hospitalizations, data from patients’ epidemiological investigations and more.
    This type of data is a valuable resource for medical companies and corporations dabbling in the development of advanced Artificial intelligence. It's not for nothing that in 2018 Israel’s government decided to utilize this data as a means to enhance the country’s health system.
    But, all these databases containing so much information about us all were established without the consent or the knowledge of the patients.
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    החיסונים בחיפה
    החיסונים בחיפה
    Coronavirus vaccination center in Haifa
    (Photo: AFP)
    According to the country’s various health institutions, the reason for this lies in the fact that none of the medical data gathered contains any personal information such as names, ID numbers or addresses.
    And while it may be true, the rapid advancement of technology means that now, more than ever, it is possible to reconstruct one’s supposedly anonymous profile even without any concrete personal information.
    If anyone was still wondering why the pharmaceutical giant agreed to send Israel large shipments of its coronavirus vaccines before anyone else in the world, it's because of promised access to this very data in an effort to improve the safety and effectiveness of its vaccine. Because it's important to remember, Israel is one of the few countries in the world with a digitized health system.
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    צוותי ההוראה מתחסנים
    צוותי ההוראה מתחסנים
    Waiting in line to receive the vaccine in Tel Aviv
    (Photo: Tel Aviv Municipality)
    For Pfizer, who tested the vaccine on only about 40 thousand people before began mass manufacturing, a nationwide field test on millions of Israelis is invaluable, especially considering its vaccine was approved in an emergency authorization.
    The mere promise that Pfizer will receive information about those inoculated means that Israel’s nationwide coronavirus campaign is actually one big clinical trial, maybe the biggest one in the 21st century.
    And while it’s a legitimate course of action, this nationwide clinical trial means that Israel and Pfizer both must follow the accepted procedure for conducting experiments, as well as be subject to supervision by such bodies as the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, which authorizes medical experiments on humans.
    At the moment, however, this human trial on all of us is has not even been mentioned by the Health Ministry.
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    חיסונים נגד קורונה סבב שני באיכילוב
    חיסונים נגד קורונה סבב שני באיכילוב
    Waiting to receive the second dose of Pfizer's vaccine
    (Photo: Moti Kimchi)
    The people of Israel, me included, have formed bee lines in front vaccination centers to get inoculated. This tremendous drive among Israelis to receive the vaccination is quite spectacular, but it doesn't change the fact that none of us gave our consent to be part of this experiment for the U.S. drugmaker.
    This is a violation of the government's responsibility for us, which begins with the need to obtain our consent to provide personal information to third parties, continues with its obligation to thoroughly secure sensitive reservoirs of data and ends with the ethical duty to inform us about the results of the clinical trial we're clearly going to be a part of.
    For instance, say the experiment reveals that the vaccine is dangerous to those taking a certain type of antibiotics or even Pfizer’s own Viagra (used to treat erectile dysfunction), will they inform the people of Israel? and if so, when?
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    משלוח נוסף של חיסוני פייזר בדרך לישראל
    משלוח נוסף של חיסוני פייזר בדרך לישראל
    A shipment of Pfizer's vaccines arriving in Israel
    Getting inoculated allows Israelis to take an active part in the effort to advance humanity to the post-coronavirus era. Let us not forget though, that the right to receive the vaccine goes hand in hand with the right to refuse to partake in any kind of clinical trial.
    This agreement with Pfizer teaches us that the government, the Health Ministry and HMOs, think they own our right to be healthy.
    This must change, because once our data is shared, there's no turning back and we will lose our rights over it forever.

    Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler is a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and head of the institute’s Media Reform Program and Democracy in the Information Age Program.
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