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Gambling on Wrong Vaccine Is the Least of Israel's COVID Worries

Latent infection rates among ultra-Orthodox and Arabs, bewildering double standards on education and high turnover among senior health officials during the coronavirus crisis all reveal the government's skewed priorities

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Should we start at the end or at the beginning? Pfizer’s announcement on Monday of its significant success with testing a vaccine for the coronavirus scored some huge reverberations. This is the good news the international community had been waiting for since Joe Biden’s victory in the U.S. presidential election.

A 90-percent success rate during stage 3 testing, as the company says, reflects a better outcome than the company’s most optimistic forecasts. In the meantime the stock exchanges, the administration and the American public, including the scientific community, accept it at face value. We have not heard any serious source challenging the credibility of these findings. The statement provides the first real hope for tamping down the pandemic, within a reasonable time frame, without awaiting the slow and dangerous process of waiting for herd immunity.

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But unfortunately, and despite the signs of a speedy development of a vaccine for the new illness, it looks as though the virus will not be halted in the northern hemisphere by this winter. In light of the wide spread of the coronavirus in the United States and Europe in the past two months, a lot more suffering and death is anticipated before we see any relief.

On the optimistic side, Pfizer hopes to receive approval to distribute the vaccine this month, create some 50 million doses by the end of the year (two doses per person are necessary) and produce more than a billion doses by next year. The fact that the company is proclaiming success with the use of new immunization technology, messenger RNA, or mRNA, is a good sign according to the experts of rival company Moderna, which is using a similar process. It would seem within the realm of possibility that several companies will reach the finishing line in the coming months. The world will need them.

If all this indeed does happen, then it’s a tremendous accomplishment of the scientific and medical communities. And if Pfizer continues to meet the expectations, it may be possible to begin inoculating medical teams in the United States (where their infection rates have hurt the quality of care people receive) as well as nursing home staff and service providers who come into contact with a relatively large number of people by January or February.

CBS’ “60 Minutes” reported that the U.S. Army is preparing to administer the vaccine to all citizens around springtime. And in January, there will be a new president in the White House – one who treats science seriously. This is a very different approach than that of Donald Trump’s administration, which considered firing its coronavirus czar, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and some of whose supporters openly called for murdering scientists and doctors in charge of crisis policy.

Pfizer Manufacturing Belgium in Puurs, Belgium, Monday, November 9, 2020. Credit: AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

But the problems in America will not be magically resolved with Biden’s entry and Trump’s exit (hopefully without the use of force). Despite its economic and technological wealth, the United States is structurally behind in handling of the virus, and not only because of the great spread of illness. In the U.S, the federal government’s ability to force policy on state governors is limited and it seems that the very existence of the virus is still politically controversial. In addition, a great number of people there, some of them bitter at what they see as a stolen election, see even the need to wear a mask as a harsh blow to their basic rights.

Israel bets on a different horse

Israel has bet on a different horse in the race to a vaccine, and since Monday is feverishly trying to persuade the outgoing U.S. administration to move it to the front of Pfizer’s queue. It’s doubtful that this will happen. Even a vaccine by the Institute for Biological Research in Nes Tziona is delayed, despite all the festivities here. If the testing goes well, it will be licensed for distribution by the end of next year. Hopes are pinned on Moderna and other competitors, whose optimistic assessments envisage the possibility of beginning to distribute vaccines in Israel by next spring or summer.

On the other hand, this winter, the Israeli health system, like that of other countries, will be more experienced and hopefully also better prepared than the first time around. In Europe, the high number of confirmed cases is reflected in a rise in fatalities, but the rate of illness is still lower than it was in March and April. The explanation for this is not only the fact that there were not enough tests available at the outset of the pandemic, but an improvement in treatment and hospital preparedness. Belgium is already seeing an extreme case load in the hospitals, but so far there are no reports from Europe about hospitals failing, like in Lombardy and northern Italy last winter.

Israel crossed the 800 serious cases threshold in September, which led to the second lockdown. But then the health establishment amended its assessments and said the threshold for a real breakdown at the hospitals is actually much higher than that. It might be that at the height of the crunch, there was a drop in quality of medical treatment in Israel, but there was no collapse and it’s doubtful we even came close to that.

In recent days, Netanyahu and the Health Ministry cautioned against letting our guard down, which could lead to a renewed outbreak of cases and a third lockdown ahead of Hanukkah. They’re seeking to slow down and even stop the process of easing the coronavirus restrictions. There is a desire to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, which led them to lose control over the virus in May and again in September. The data now shows 500 to 700 cases a day – rather high – and spending time in closed spaces during the winter could raise those numbers fairly easily.

But even the warnings must be viewed proportionately. At least until Monday, the rate of positive tests was 2 to 2.5 percent. The key question is how high is the hidden infection rate, the one that isn’t measured because some communities (the ultra-Orthodox, Arabs and young people) have developed a tendency to avoid testing. The other mystery is about the goings-on among the Haredim, whose infection rates have been significantly lower than in the general public for the past several weeks. If assessments are correct that about 30 percent of Haredim have already contracted the virus, and at this stage there is no significant reinfection going on, then perhaps there’s a kind of obstacle preventing a renewed spread of the illness in that community.

This provides an opportunity to remind us again what we tend to forget, which is that the Israeli government’s greatest failure in handling the virus – besides abandoning the nursing homes in the first wave – is the education system, especially the double standard toward the ultra-Orthodox. Each time Netanyahu takes pride in his successes against the coronavirus, we have to remind ourselves that for the past month, he has allowed the entire Haredi community to hold classes unhindered for political reasons, while the vast majority of Israeli schoolchildren are stuck at home, turning into Zoom zombies and missing out on a year or more’s worth of vital material.

Professor Itamar Grotto at a press conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, May 29, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

Top official's departure

Health Ministry Deputy Director Prof. Itamar Grotto’s resignation at the beginning of the week is a landmark event. With the exception of Netanyahu and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, none of the leading figures from the start of the crisis remain in their posts. Since January, the heads of the health and finance ministries have changed, as have directors general and branch heads involved in making important decisions. Some of the turnover was due to the election results in March and the composition of a new government. In other cases, those who resigned noted that they had burned out and exhausted their possibilities.

The coronavirus crisis has been compared more than once to the days of the second intifada. The number of Israelis dying of the virus is already more than double the number of victims of terrorist attacks during that time (although with the current crisis, the average age of the victims is a little above 80). The economic damage done this time around is apparently worse and it may take years for the Israeli economy to recover.

During the five years of the second intifada, which started in 2000, the prime minister’s job changed hands (from Ehud Barak to Ariel Sharon in a 2001 election) as did the chief of staff (from Shaul Mofaz to Moshe Yaalon, who succeeded him in 2002 as planned). But did anyone imagine a situation where the entire Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet security service leadership would leave their jobs during those terrible years of suicide bombings? It seems this says something about the level of commitment on the part of current leaders, political and professional, to defend the lives of the citizens.

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