‘I’ll Get Us 36 Million COVID Vaccines’: What’s Behind the New Number Netanyahu Is Touting

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Netanyahu, last week
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, last week.Credit: David Bachar

Remember the number: 36 million. Vaccines, of course. Starting today, that’s the ironclad number that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeats in interviews and on the social media. Anyone who listened to his interviews on the morning programs on Army Radio and on Kan radio’s Reshet Bet couldn’t miss the new message that he is now repeating full force. It can be divided into three parts: the problem, the solution and the omnipotent leader.

The problem – “There’s a problem,” Netanyahu informed radio presenter Effi Triger right from the start. “The two vaccines that you and every one of us received – are only good for a limited period. Nobody knows how long they will last. We have to prepare for the possibility that in the pessimistic scenario [the vaccination has to be repeated] every six months … in another half a year you don’t have any more vaccines and the virus could return and then you’re in an endless round of more lockdowns, more illness, more death and more closing of the economy.”

Netanyahu spoke in a similar vein on Reshet Bet. On Facebook he was even more vociferous – not a pessimistic scenario, but a fact: “The coronavirus wasn’t stopped by the two vaccinations you received. The vaccination is effective for six months to a year. Without more vaccines it will return in another six months.”

The solution, explains Netanyahu, is to prepare a procurement blitz already now. “My first mission, which the public doesn’t understand, is to bring another 36 million vaccines immediately in the coming year.” He repeated this on Reshet Bet, and we’ll probably continue to hear that number a lot.

Why 36 million? Netanyahu says that in a few months children can be vaccinated, so we’ll need two doses each for 9 million citizens – twice a year, for a total of 36 million doses. “There will be tremendous competition. It already exists in other countries, and that’s why I’m working on it already now.”

Netanyahu at a press conference at Tel Hashomer hospital last month. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO

After presenting the problem and the solution, Netanyahu conveyed the principal message. He’s the only leader who can deliver the goods. “I brought millions of vaccines, a worldwide miracle,” he said. “Aren’t you exaggerating,” asked presenter Aryeh Golan. “There’s a state here, institutions, government ministries.” The reply: “Of course there’s also an exceptional health care system to distribute it, but if I hadn’t brought the vaccines it wouldn’t have helped.”

Netanyahu continued: “I as prime minister did something about which the heads of Pfizer and Moderna said: ‘No leader did what you did.’ I’ve had over 30 conversations with them, I’m conducting negotiations with them to bring the vaccines to everyone in a contract suited to new mutations,” he declared on Army Radio.

And the bottom line, if the message wasn’t clear: “Who will bring the tens of millions of vaccines for you and your children? There are 180 countries and not one of their government leaders did that.

It’s nothing new that Netanyahu is using the vaccines to promote his election campaign. But the message that began with “Go get vaccinated,” has now been replaced by: “The vaccination provides only temporary protection, we need another tens of millions of vaccines in order to survive and I’m the only person who can provide them.”

Is Netanyahu correct when he states that “The vaccination is effective for only six months to a year, and without more vaccines the virus will return six months from now?” That’s not at all certain.

“The claim that in another six months we’ll need a booster is not necessarily true. As far as we know now regarding the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the immunological memory in the trials lasted at least 120 days, and according to estimates could reach even two years and more,” explains immunologist Dr. Erez Garty from the Davidson Institute of Science Education at the Weizmann Institute.

A coronavirus vaccine is administered in Tel Aviv, last week.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“We know that the immunological memory in those recovering from the virus is at least half a year, and the immunological reaction of those vaccinated looks far better than that, so there’s no reason to assume that the immunity will end after such a period of time.”

What about the variants?

“That’s another matter, because the moment the virus undergoes enough changes the efficacy of the vaccine is likely to decline. We know that it provides good protection against the British variant that is dominant in Israel, but nobody has an unequivocal answer about the other variants. If the New York variant runs wild here we may need a booster – but we’re in a pandemic with a new virus and science has no unequivocal answers.”

Hypothetically, could the vaccine we received last for our entire lives?

“Yes, assuming that the virus doesn’t undergo enough changes. Its efficacy ranges from half a year to many years, and it’s too early to tell. We have to understand that immunity is a range: It’s possible that even if immunity declines and there’s infection – those vaccinated will still avoid serious illness, because the immune system already identifies the virus and can create a reaction against it.”

If we do need more doses, is Netanyahu really the only person capable of delivering the goods? A knowledgeable health care source confirms that Netanyahu has personally conducted the procurement in recent months, over the heads of the professionals in the health and finance ministries.

“He speaks directly with the Pfizer and Moderna CEOs. He realized that within all this chaos it’s the only ray of light enabling him to convey success, but to say that he’s the only one who can bring millions of vaccines to Israel? That’s really not true. If [Gideon] Sa’ar or [Yair] Lapid become prime ministers and appoint outstanding professionals who will work only on that – it will happen.”

A possible solution to the problem is starting a vaccine plant in cooperation with one of the companies in Israel. According to some estimates, Netanyahu would like to announce that before the election, perhaps during the upcoming visit of the Pfizer CEO in Israel, and maybe the mantra of 36 million vaccines is part of preparing the ground for the announcement.

The bottom line: In the scenario of a new pandemic, which is still being studied, making preparations to acquire additional vaccine doses, if needed, is a desirable step. The total politicization of public health and the obliteration of the professional cadres along the way – is less so.

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