Israel’s data-for-vaccines drives quick rollout but raises privacy concerns

Thuranira John Kobia  - Tech Journalist
Last updated: November 20, 2023
Israel Pfizer Privacy Concerns
  • Israel secures dozens of COVID-19 vaccinations and vaccinates millions of its population ahead of the US, UK, and others.
  • The nation intends to provide two shots of the vaccine to each Israeli before Mar. 23 elections.
  • Country's health and privacy experts raise concerns about patient’s sensitive medical details.

It is unbelievable how tiny Israel manages to secure dozens of COVID-19 vaccinations more than bigger countries. Besides, it is even more surprising that it has vaccinated a larger share of its citizenry already.

With a population of just 9 million people, Israel struck a unique deal, vaccines for data. The country paid a premium and secured Pfizer-BioTech vaccines early. According to the agreement, Israel promised Pfizer a swift vaccination rollout. It also provided data from a centralized trove of medical statistics.

Yuli Edelstein, Israel’s health minister, stated the country promised Pfizer a swift vaccination. The small population and advanced public health systems enable Pfizer to track the vaccine’s impact with ease. However, Jerica Pitts, Pfizer’s spokesperson, pointed out that the company has yet to sign such an agreement.

Still, the vaccines-for-data agreement has raised concerns about personal medical records abuse. The deal seems to be the widest medical experiments on humans. This is according to Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a data privacy advocate at Israel Democracy Institute. With some commentators shunning Tehilla’s claims, Israel’s Health Ministry reports a decline in infection rates.

Drive for swift vaccination against upcoming elections

Most Israelis have become excited about the nation’s record-setting vaccination. About a third of Israel’s population has gotten at least a shot of the Pfizer-BioTech COVID-19 vaccine. 17 percent of people have received both shots. The country aims at vaccinating most of its citizens before the Mar. 23 election.

The COVID-19 vaccine move seems a reelection tactic for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He was the first Israeli to receive the vaccination and commented on how the shot is vital to man. Benjamin’s government has also dismissed claims that it will provide vaccines to Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

But, the country will send 5,000 COVID-19 vaccines to Palestinian medical workers in the West Back. This is according to Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s office to NPR. The move comes with some Israeli medical experts suggesting the need to vaccinate Palestinians. Palestine is yet to begin to receive COVID-19 vaccines as officials signed deals late with manufacturers.

Accessible healthcare system

Most Israeli citizens and residents belong to one of the four public HMOs. This is a healthcare system containing the national trade union of Israel’s history. It includes medical records from physician visits to hospitalization.

This makes it easier for any health provider to access patient data. Among those who helped launch Israel’s public health database is Ziv Ofek.  He stated that this is an unparalleled healthcare system there is today.

His medical data company, MDClone, is creating a separate coronavirus patient system. The new database will guarantee privacy protection and help answer critical questions.

Privacy concerns

Though the Israeli Health Ministry kept Pfizer agreement terms confidential, it later published part of it on Jan. 17, 2021. The publication was to reassure data use, but it raised further questions. Although, Israel’s medical data experts focused on what Israel shared with Pfizer.

These experts probed about the data and clinical trials conducted without Israel’s consent. Israeli officials insisted they are providing anonymous and already known statistics to Pfizer. These include weekly cases and hospitalization figures.

In a statement, Pfizer disregards receiving sensitive individual health information but epidemiology data. Yet, the terms in the agreement suggest Israel will provide anonymous patient data. Israeli health officials claim they are not giving any patient-level data but statistics.

Privacy and medical data experts state patients’ data is at risk if Israel transfers any data. Though some Israelis ignore these threats, experts say it would be harmful if it gets into the wrong hands.

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About the Author

Thuranira is a privacy expert who is always excited about security empowerment through technology. He loves sharing his tech expertise with everyday users so that they can enjoy a better life online.

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