Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu purchased doses of the Russian Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine for the Palestinians, according to Hadassah-University Medical Center Director-General Zeev Rotstein.
“We suggested [Sputnik V], and in fact, our prime minister already organized some of the Russian vaccines for the Palestinians,” Rotstein said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
When asked again by the Post to clarify that the vaccines were purchased by Netanyahu for the Palestinians, he said the answer was yes.
Hadassah had originally signed an agreement with Russia for the purchase of 1.5 million Sputnik V vaccines, but when the Health Ministry failed to provide approval for the vaccine, Rotstein said the hospital cancelled its contract.
The Russian vaccine has been shown to be nearly 92% effective in warding off the virus, according to a study published by the peer-reviewed Lancet medical journal. However, it has not been FDA approved.
The Prime Minister’s Office denied that such a purchase was made. The Palestinian Authority also said it did not know anything about the deal. The Russian Direct Investment Fund said, “we are not commenting on this.”
FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT:
Israel is getting a lot of worldwide attention for its handling of the pandemic, its mass vaccination campaign that began at the end of December especially. How is Israel really doing?
I don’t think the medal of fighting the corona successfully is going to Israel this year. Somehow I have the feeling that we made many mistakes during the fighting against corona. There is a long list. And it’s my personal feeling that Israel could do better.
Interesting. What is the status at Hadassah – how many COVID-19 patients do you have there now?
I would say there were weeks where we had more than 150 patients at a time. Then it reduced to around 100 patients at the same time. Today we are a little bit less than 100 patients, we are 90 patients. And you have to realize that these patients are extra patients. We didn’t replace regular patients with corona patients, so this is on the top of what we are doing in our occupancy rate is above 100 all the time. This means the hospital is really crowded and we are really busy trying to treat non-corona patients and corona patients.
Hadassah has been one of the busiest hospitals during this pandemic, if not the busiest – right at the intersection of haredi and Arab society – two populations we know have had massive outbreaks. How many people total did you treat? And how did the hospital handle it?
In total, speaking about 100%, it means 1,400 patients have been treated at our two campuses. And the average is over 100% occupancy rate, so it’s 1,500 patients at the same time we are treating with the same amount of staff. Our problem really is the staff positions, that are really giving their heart and sweat for treatment of people in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is unique in the way that it was extremely red during the pandemic because of the different sectors in Jerusalem, being haredi Jews on one hand and the Arab population from east Jerusalem on the other and then the secular Jews. So it’s kind of a mixture.
And it’s represented well among our staff and patients. Remember, our staff comes from these three sources, and [the epidemic spreads at home, so some of our staff got infected. And we had to really be very careful. That’s why we started early to screen our staff. We did it long before it was accepted by the Health Ministry but it saved us because we limited the number of staff that got infected by it and we kept ourselves as an island without the corona inside and among our staff as much as we could.
Of course, living in a red zone directly affected the number of patients among our staff as well because they go home at the end of the shift. But it was better, and we handled it better than everyone else. And it was reflected in percentage of vaccinated patients. We started early in vaccinations and we tried to be the best among all the other hospitals. And I’m proud to say more than 95% of all our staff are now vaccinated, and starting next week we won’t allow any physician or nurse to get close to a patient without being fully vaccinated.
Amazing, and I think you’re the only hospital that’s doing that, requiring staff to be vaccinated or not treat the patients, correct?
We are proud enough to say loudly and openly that we care for our patients. Remember that we have immunosuppressed patients, and with many risk factors and diseases. Our responsibility for these patients is, as we say in Latin primum non nocere, first of all to help our own people that we are treating and that we will care for our patients. And I think it’s much more important than to keep an eye on the privacy of our staff because usually those who decided to join Hadassah should know in advance that the first, second and third things that matter are our patients.
The government this week made a decision to open the airports and allow Israelis to return home to vote in the election. They claim they are going to increase enforcement. They are going to use electronic means to track the whereabouts of the people that are supposed to be in isolation. How trouble are we in?
We are in a lot of trouble, but it comes from two sources. And I’m not really politically correct in what I’m saying, and sometimes I have criticism of my own ministry, which is the Health Ministry and some of the ideas of the government. I want to be very honest today. A majority of Israelis are immune, over 4.5 million people, except for the children, and I hope very much that international firms will finish with their clinical assessment of the safety of the vaccines for children under 16 and we will enlarge the population that are immune.
The problem of course is mutations. We know there are mutations and we know there will be more mutations, and we know we can actually guess and say there will be mutations that will not be susceptible to the immunization from the vaccine.
You mean they’ll be vaccine resistant, we won’t be able to fight them with the vaccine?
We probably will have that, in time. And it will come through the only opening, which is of course Ben-Gurion Airport. So the mission is not just for the public to obey regulations, it’s for the Health Ministry – they cannot hide behind saying the people are not disciplined. If they care about mutations, they should screen everybody. And next generation sequencing is available in the country, it’s available in most hospitals, especially Hadassah. The fact that they insist on doing the next generation sequencing for the positive corona tests only in one place, which is the Health Ministry laboratory – this is the problem. Because they don’t work around the clock. They are limited in the number of exams they can perform. They should split it among the other hospitals. It should be very clear that the answer for new mutations should be given in less than 12 hours rather than 3 weeks or 4 weeks until a new epidemic starts. It’s time to stop talking and start doing, and if it’s so important, and I believe it’s important, next generations sequencing of positive tests should be done by everyone and immediately.
It’s one episode to really discover the mutation in 12 hours, or to put the people for 12 days or 14 days at home, which is much more difficult to achieve. The earliest that we can detect a new patient and isolate them would be perfect. And I believe that building trust of the people to our leaders, especially medical leaders, is essential to beat the pandemic. And I’m one who says exactly what I think and I say it openly. If we are afraid, and we should be afraid, of new mutations, then new tactics should be instituted immediately without any hesitation.
It’s very reminiscent of the beginning of the first wave, when we only allowed people to test for corona in the central lab until they realized we need 100,000 tests.
Same mistakes! Then the private sector actually saved the country, though in Hadassah we could have done much more than we did. We had around 8,000 PCR tests a day.
I’m afraid there’s a lot of politics – and not just the parties, as lot of politics are taking place all over the country. And the Health Ministry is not innocent in this internal politics. Sometimes they look at Hadassah and in spite of the fact that Hadassah has been here for more than 100 years giving care to the people of the area, openly without discrimination, always the best treatment available. Still they consider us as outsiders of the governmental network of hospitals, which reflects on our budget, our ability to give the best care to people, etc. It might be time to look differently at the seven public hospitals that are not governmental hospitals to care for their existence, to give them enough budget, to care for the workers of these hospitals and to use them properly, because I have the idea that we are underused by the ministry, could do much more than we do today.
The fact is that from a day to day, we have accomplished an additional 150 patients of corona on top of what we’re doing normally means there is potential,. and it should be used by the government and the Health Ministry.
You mentioned the need to do genetic sequencing of anyone who tests positive when they come into the country but if we’re afraid of the mutations and they might be vaccine resistant, why are we letting people who are vaccinated come in and not be isolated without testing at all?
If you’re asking for my opinion, everyone should be PCR tested upon entry, regardless of if they’re vaccinated or not. We should test everyone. This is how we block entrance of new mutations. Then of course immediately we should perform the genetic testing necessary to every positive test. And by that, we will block the propagation of a new mutation. That’s the way to do it, but it must be done decisively, with a lot of trust from everybody. Just to throw people into hotels or put them under electronic cuffs or to make them stay two weeks at home has no logic. It causes resistance and mistrust, and what we see today is a reaction.
I don’t think Israelis are the most disciplined population of the world, they will try to sneak away from any authority, but trust can reduce this to a minimum. And to do this, first of all, we need to use logic. Simple, common sense is what is missing today. And I’m not the only one with common sense in the country. And if I have criticism with a lack of common sense, I can spread it to people around me, and that builds resentment. That’s being the anti, and this anti is unfortunately right now dominating the country.
Let’s take a minute to talk about Sputnik V – the Russian vaccine. Hadassah bought how many doses? A few million?
Hadassah had the notion that the Russian vaccine is an extremely good vaccine.
I’m sure it is.
Exactly. Last October, we actually participated in the Phase 3 clinical study in Moscow. So we knew there were no significant side effects and produces the antibody needed. Then we put a hand on a million and a half units in November. We could have had them in the country and started vaccinations earlier in 2-3 months, which makes a huge difference. But unfortunately, the Health Ministry refused to approve the Russian vaccine, they said “we will wait until it is approved by the FDA.” This is a political issue between he US and Russia. Their relations are not as okay as the US and Canada. So taking this special relationship into consideration means Russia didn’t rush to get it approved by the FDA but rather did it in other countries, especially Europe, where it is already approved. Last week I read a report that 1.1 billion people around the globe are going to be vaccinated with the Russian vaccine. If it’s good for 1 billion people, I cannot justify the approach of Israel saying “okay, it’s not approved here.”
So what we did, knowing that there is a shortage of vaccines, is give up on the Russian vaccine as long as it’s not approved in Israel, and we recommended it for the Palestinians. The reason we did this is because we are very close, we are neighbors and we are going to stay neighbors. They cannot kick us out of Israel and we won’t kick them out of their places, so we have to live together, and living together means caring for them is caring for us. So we suggested it and in fact our prime minister already organized some of the Russian vaccines for the Palestinians. And again, it was shown that Hadassah was right. All the time, Hadassah is leading the public opinion and some of the strategy of the country, but we come first, and there’s a lot of criticism, but later on, people realize Hadassah was right. That’s important to us.
We learn from the Bible that Israel needs someone to lead them. In the medical field, Hadassah can lead in innovation, in new ways of treatment, in new ways of diagnostics, in new ways of caring for people. That’s okay, that’s our goal, that’s our mission. We’ll continue to lead the country. And our opinion is expressed openly and loudly, and no one will shut our mouths.
So the Russian vaccines, those were purchased by Netanyahu for the Palestinians?
[The Prime Minister’s Office denied the purchase was made.]
When are they going to be delivered?
They started already, from what we know. We in Hadassah took part of the vaccinations of the medical staff of the Palestinian Authority and we’re ready to accept any requests from them, including transferring patients. We got a few of them already.
I know they have trouble right now with the mobility of their own people and we are ready to assist them.
Hadassah is always open to everyone. That’s important to mention. That’s the essence of Hadassah. It’s a public institution open to everyone and we will do everything possible to save people’s lives.
I thought we were using Moderna for the Palestinian workers. Are we using Moderna and Sputnik? We purchased Sputnik and we’re giving them some of our Moderna vaccines?
We didn’t purchase from Pfizer or Moderna, it’s the Health Ministry who decided to purchase and distribute. In the beginning when Pfizer was limited to minus 70 degrees in storage and impossible to move, they thought it would be perfect to use Moderna for those places that we cannot deliver the Pfizer. To this day, I’m not sure who was vaccinated by Pfizer or Moderna. I believe the majority of the population was vaccinated by Pfizer, and that gives Pfizer a lot of advantages. Remember, they got the data of a messy vaccination process of a country.
That’s worth a lot, and Israel gave them permission to collect data, and that’s helped us to get vaccines earlier from Pfizer. It was a kind of deal that Israel enjoyed because they could have been vaccinated earlier than everyone else. And indeed, the percentage of over 50 years of age vaccinated in Israel is the best, and we show the way. And again, Hadassah was one of the leaders again, and we vaccinated everybody. We started to vaccinate recovered patients knowing that the level of antibodies was reducing. The Health Ministry followed us.
Hadassah is a kind of international entity, and we pretty much rely on our donors anyway. Our mother organization, the women of Hadassah as we call them HWZOA is caring for us all the time especially now to help us as much as possible. So if you can make a pledge to help Hadassah be the leader of medical facilities here in Israel, you are more than welcome.
Hadassah has been at the forefront of more than one medical innovation during this pandemic. There is Kamada, which is a passive vaccine treatment, if you will. And there is also Dr. Dror Mevorach’s Allocetra. Can you talk about where we’re holding now with those treatments?
I’m not sure if you know but we conducted 21 clinical studies on different treatments and medications in the last year for corona.
21? I didn’t know.
We did, and we are trying to explore the most successful treatment,. It was clear for us that passive immunization using immunoglobulin from recovered patients is an important key to change the fate of the disease. We started with Kamada and later on we moved to commercially available antibodies like Regeneron, and even today if someone is sick with only mild symptoms we take them for three hour treatment and infuse the monoclonal antibodies changing the disease into a mild disease and then send him home. We are collecting the data so far and I think it’s very successful. I call on everyone who has been diagnosed with coronavirus to get this treatment which is safe and can treat this disease.
The Allocetra, made by our researcher Dr. Dror Mevorach, is doing miracles in the second phase of the disease when the body starts attacking itself, which we call the area of the Cytokine Storm. We discovered in the phase 2 study of this medication that within 48 hours, a patient can walk back home without being ventilated.
Hadassah is on the cutting edge of technology and R&D. We are serving the world by being a center dealing with research and not just treatment.
When is this going to end? It’s been a year, where is the light at the end of the tunnel? How many more years of this?
So you want me to be a prophet (laughs). I cannot guess. What I can say is that we should be clever as Israelis of the hi-tech nation to learn how to live with an open education system, open commerce, open restaurants, open hospitals, and deal with corona by continuing to build and fortify our nation. That’s the important lesson to learn. I don’t know if it will end this year or next year or if there will be a new mutation, but we need to be ready. So R&D and developing new vaccinations as we are right now in our institution in Ness Ziona is important because who knows, maybe tomorrow we’ll need it. and I don’t see this same attitude in our Health Ministry and government as in Hadassah. So I can promise you that we will do our utmost to learn to live together with corona, with this pandemic, and continue to develop our own country.