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Israel's Ambitious Vaccine Drive Is Set for Success as Netanyahu Seeks Election Campaign Boost

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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An Israeli woman receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a temporary vaccination center in the lobby of a gymnasium in Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, December 21, 2020.
An Israeli woman receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a temporary vaccination center in the lobby of a gymnasium in Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, December 21, 2020.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner / AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel is now at the height of a particularly ambitious effort – to become one of the first countries in the world to vaccinate most of its population against the coronavirus, slowing infection and hopefully stopping the pandemic in its tracks. The current rate of vaccinations, which began last week, will see the immunization of most of the high-risk population by the end of January. If the doses are received on time from Pfizer, most of the population (except for children under 16) may be vaccinated during March 2021.

These optimistic predictions rest on the dizzying rate of vaccinations. On Sunday, some 99,000 Israelis received their first dose, and according to Health Ministry figures, by Monday night, 495,000 people had already gotten their shot. Statements from official discussions over the past few days reveal the desire to reach 150,000 vaccinations or more per day.

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According to the manufacturer’s guidelines, the vaccinations are to be given in two doses approximately 21 days apart. The data published by Pfizer before approval of the vaccine by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration states that a week after the second dose, immunity will rise to 95 percent. But an assessment is gradually emerging that immunity could reach 90 percent about a week after the first dose.

About two million people in Israel are considered high risk – those age 60 or more and younger people with underlying medical conditions. Israel has a major advantage in the vaccination campaign because of its highly skilled HMOs, experienced in such campaigns. This time it seems that they are mounting a particularly effective operation, backed by the Health Ministry. In addition, public response is high. At this rate, most of the high-risk group will be reached over the next two weeks and receive their second dose by the end of January.

There are two possible stumbling blocks. One is if public response declines and some at-risk people refuse to be vaccinated (the concern at the moment is over the Arab population, where the response rate is apparently lower). The second is if a bottleneck in manufacturing stalls the supply of vaccines from abroad. Over the past few days Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has continued his efforts to persuade the heads of Pfizer and Moderna, whose vaccine is in the final stages of approval, to move up the supply of the next shipments of the vaccine to Israel.

As Haaretz reported, by the end of the month, almost four million doses of the vaccine are expected to reach Israel, enough for two million people. Among those vaccinated so far are medical personnel. Nursing home staff will be prioritized next, and the intent is to vaccinate people who come into close contact with many members of the public. The option of vaccinating teachers is also under examination in order to keep the education system open even during the lockdown.

Vaccines are being given to those in high-risk groups, including medical workers and civilians over 60. This man receives the coronavirus vaccine in Jerusalem, December 28, 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Channel 12 News reported on Sunday that more than a million doses at least of the Pfizer vaccine will arrive in Israel in January 2021. Approximately another four million doses are expected to arrive in February. In March, the Moderna vaccines will start to arrive, about 1 million doses. Altogether, some 10 million doses of the vaccine, enough for 5 million people, are to arrive by March. Not counting the under-16 age group, 12 million doses are needed to completely inoculate almost two thirds of the population. At the moment this goal seems achievable by March, providing that more vaccines can be imported and most people agree to take the vaccine.

The vaccine’s manufacturers may have an interest in speeding up the supply because they may see Israel as a test case. A show of the efficacy of the vaccine in a small country prepared to inoculate most of its population may encourage more countries to sign contracts with it. The manufacturers will ask Israel for as much medical information as possible on the population’s response to the immunization.

When we add to the calculation another approximately 400,000 Israelis who have already been diagnosed with COVID-19 (the real number might be double due to asymptomatic illness), we are moving toward the possible threshold of herd immunity. There is in this calculation a great deal of “if” and “maybe” but it explains the optimism of Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein over the chances of stopping the spread of the virus in Israel in the near future.

Meanwhile, Israel is discussing with the Gulf states the possibility that the latter will purchase vaccines for the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Since tens of thousands of Palestinians work in Israel and even more have commercial and family ties in Israel, it will be difficult to get past the pandemic in Israel without vaccinating the people in the West Bank. The need to help the Gaza Strip stems from the fear that widespread infection there will lead to a security escalation.

Another unknown is the British mutation of the virus, a few carriers of which have been identified over the past few days in Israel, and which, according to preliminary research, could be 50–70 percent more infectious. But while still awaiting confirmation, most scientists believe that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will also be effective against the variant identified in the U.K., Denmark and South Africa.

The ongoing vaccination campaign is paired with a national lockdown that began on Sunday afternoon due to the spike in infections. In fact, the lockdown has been fairly porous; the police have not placed roadblocks on main highways during the day and most schools have remained open.

The streets of Jerusalem's old city are close to empty as Israel enters a third lockdown, December 28, 2020. Credit: Maya Alleruzzo / AP

The lockdown is to continue for three weeks and the health care system says that the Knesset's insistence to keep schools open will lead to a five week extension of the lockdown. But the continued rapid vaccination of the at-risk population could stop the spread of severe infection in a matter of a few weeks and might impact decisions regarding the lockdown’s duration.

These developments may have political significance. Netanyahu has for a long time viewed the vaccinations as the main way out of the coronavirus crisis. If most of the population is immunized by March, the prime minister can reach Election Day with the narrative that he beat the virus ahead of most other countries. As opposed to his boasting over other achievements during the crisis – this time he might have something to base these claims on.

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