Israel trades citizens' medical data for vaccines

Israel is racing into the lead in its efforts to vaccinate all nine million of its people. Unfortunately, they’ve run into the same supply chain problems as everyone else. The global demand for vaccines is so high right now that it’s tough to get your hands on any large quantities. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly come up with a solution to that problem. He claims to have personally struck a deal with the executives at Pfizer to secure increasingly large shipments of their vials, but the price he’s paying for them has alarmed some privacy advocates. Rather than larger amounts of money, Isreal will be turning over reams of medical data on its citizens so the pharmaceutical giant can use the information as part of their ongoing testing. (Associated Press)

After sprinting ahead in the race to inoculate its population against the coronavirus, Israel has struck a deal with Pfizer, promising to share vast troves of medical data with the international drug giant in exchange for the continued flow of its hard-to-get vaccine.

Proponents say the deal could allow Israel to become the first country to vaccinate most of its population while providing valuable research that could help the rest of the world. But critics say the deal raises major ethical concerns, including possible privacy violations and a deepening of the global divide that enables wealthy countries to stockpile vaccines as poorer populations, including Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza, have to wait longer to be inoculated.

The reason that Netanyahu is personally be credited (or blamed, depending on your point of view) for this arrangement is that he’s been trumpeting the achievement in the press himself. He’s facing a tough election this year and clearly wants to be seen as the leader who found a way to beat the pandemic into submission. That’s probably a smart move in political terms, but it also serves as a reminder of the limits on freedom in that country.

We’ve already seen examples of the private data of Israeli citizens being sacrificed for the common good. Earlier this month we learned that the movements and interactions of everyone in Israel were being constantly monitored by their cell phone data with no ability to opt-out of the program. The tool they are using is the same system that’s used to track the movements and contact information of suspected Palestinian terrorists.

We frequently refer to Israel as one of the only lasting democracies in that part of the world, and it is… to a point. But in reality, Israeli citizens don’t enjoy the same breadth of constitutionally mandated freedoms that United States citizens do. There really is no presumption of privacy for even law-abiding citizens in that country. That may sound harsh, but when you consider the reality of the existence of the Israeli state, it’s kind of understandable. Israel exists in what can fairly be described as a constant state of emergency and has been laboring under that condition since May of 1948.

When you are constantly under attack (or at least the threat of attack) by your neighbors and are being regularly infiltrated by terrorist killers, security precautions have to be taken. And to do that effectively, you have to be able to keep a handle on who is who and what they are up to. Seen in that light, the potential exposure of personal medical information likely won’t be seen as that big of a deal for most Israeli citizens, particularly if it means getting everyone vaccinated more quickly and wiping out the virus.

Some of Israel’s usual critics are claiming that the system is biased and that Netanyahu is stockpiling vaccines while the Palestinians are forced to wait longer for their own shipments. We’ve seen similar complaints about “vaccine nationalism” here in America. (This phenomenon may have temporarily replaced “white nationalism” in popularity among liberals.) But the reality is that each government has a responsibility to take care of its own citizens first. It’s one of the reasons we have governments. America is working hard to vaccinate all of its own citizens as a priority, though we will no doubt continue to help out the rest of the world once that’s been accomplished. Israel is doing the same thing. I’m just wondering if all of this data-sharing that Netanyahu has started will come to an end when the country reaches herd immunity or if this will become a permanent fixture.