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Israel Secures COVID-19 Vaccine Doses By Agreeing To Share Medical Data On Israelis

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In order to secure the coronavirus vaccine for its people, Israel made a deal that leverages its population's health data, which concerns some privacy experts there. But it's helped the country give the first vaccine doses to more than a quarter of its population. That's a bigger share than in any other country. NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem reports on what the vaccine makers get in return.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Jerusalem's main sports stadium is a hive of needles and nurses vaccinating 14 hours a day.

YONI BOIGENMAN: It's great. I mean, to be the first place in the world is a good feeling.

ESTRIN: Yoni Boigenman - he got his first shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. Israel aims to be the first country to vaccinate most of its citizens, maybe in March. I asked Israel's health minister Yuli Edelstein how Israel, a country of only 9 million, managed to get Pfizer's vaccine so quickly. He didn't deny reports that it paid a premium price, but he told NPR there's more.

BOIGENMAN: We said to Pfizer that the moment they give us the vaccine, we'll be able to vaccinate at a speed they've never heard of.

ESTRIN: Israel promised to vaccinate its citizens fast and prove whether Pfizer's vaccine can bring herd immunity.

YULI EDELSTEIN: These are the things that are of big interest to Pfizer and, yes, also some the medical statistics.

ESTRIN: That's the other part of the deal. Israel is giving Pfizer access to the medical statistics of millions of its citizens to study how the vaccine works - a whole country as one big vaccine study. And Israel has good medical data, records going back 30 years at the click of a mouse. Ziv Ofek of the medical data company MDClone helped build Israel's health database and says it gives researchers huge potential for studying the vaccine.

ZIV OFEK: So now I have an endless amount of questions I can ask. Is there any progression of other diseases? Does it impact your hypertension? All you need to do is just to be able to load the fact that you've been vaccinated, and then you can run new studies.

ESTRIN: But there are concerns in Israel about whether Pfizer is going to get access to all of that information. Israel released part of the contract, which had been secret, to reassure the public. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler of the Israel Democracy Institute supports the vaccine but wants to know more about the data sharing agreement. She says Israelis are not specifically being asked for their consent.

TEHILLA SHWARTZ ALTSHULER: We need to understand that this is going to be one of the, I would say, widest medical experiments on humans of the 21st century.

ESTRIN: Israel promises to give Pfizer only anonymous statistics. But in a small country like Israel, experts say it's possible to trace data back and identify people, like who has HIV in a small town. She says there's a small chance data could get out.

SHWARTZ ALTSHULER: Your insurance company will know all your medical history. Your employer will know it. The political campaigner who would like to convince you to vote for someone would know everything about your medical history, not to say about people who would like to marry your children.

ESTRIN: An even bigger concern, she says, is the agreement allows Pfizer or Israel to delay or edit their findings before publication. Would they hide information if the results aren't successful? These are the questions that Israel's medical ethics review board wants the government to answer. Eitan Friedman heads the board.

EITAN FRIEDMAN: There needs to be total transparency, and no one party can override the real data. We need to know the truth.

ESTRIN: But he stresses he's not trying to hold up the vaccine itself, which has been approved in clinical trials, and people are lining up for it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

ESTRIN: Back at the Jerusalem Sports Arena, we meet Nuha Sharif, getting her shot but a little concerned about data and the vaccine's fast rollout.

NUHA SHARIF: I heard so many rumors about this. Some say that they want to see the experience on the people here if it's a good vaccine or not.

ESTRIN: She's a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem with Israeli health care, unlike Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, who are still waiting on vaccines from drugmakers. Israelis getting their shots here say they're not too worried about their data, like Noam Ben Dror.

NOAM BEN DROR: If it can help the world to get out of it, I don't care. I don't think it's a big secret, my personal data.

ESTRIN: He's OK with tiny Israel leveraging big data to explore how the vaccine works.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMIE XX'S "OBVS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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