Israel's Efforts to Stop Delta Variant at Airport Futile, Experts Say

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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COVID tests at Ben Gurion Airport last week.
COVID tests at Ben Gurion Airport last week.Credit: Hadas Parush
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Attempts to curb the entry of the coronavirus delta variant into Israel through Ben-Gurion Airport are futile at this stage, experts told Haaretz, due to the country’s rising incidence of illness and the identification of confirmed cases.

“When travelers returning from abroad account for less than 10 percent of confirmed cases, efforts at the airport become meaningless,” said a member of the Health Ministry’s advisory team. On Monday, only nine of the 288 newly diagnosed patients were people who had returned from abroad.

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Experts and senior health officials believe, however, that the safety net provided by the coronavirus vaccine allows the government to avoid imposing new restrictions on the public. “Unlike the pre-vaccination period, the approach during the current outbreak is to first study the virus, and determine a policy only afterwards,” said one senior official, who is party to the ministry’s discussions.

He added that the ministry’s head of public services, Sharon Alroy-Preis, and coronavirus czar Nachman Ash are unconcerned about the upswing in infections, but added that “it’s clear that they also want to stop the outbreak with minimal harm to people’s lives.”

This approach is widely supported by professionals both inside and outside the Health Ministry, and is also in line with the position of Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Horowitz has already asked ministry officials to formulate a long-term plan to deal with the threat posed by coronavirus variants as a matter of course. At the same time, the ministry has decided at this stage not to determine new criteria and conditions for tightening restrictions, but to continue to monitor the rise in infection.

Even with Israel’s high vaccination rates, the number of daily confirmed cases rose from 13 to 288 in two weeks, and the number of active COVID-19 infections went up from 230 to more than 1,500. The list of infection hotspots is getting longer, and over 40,000 people are in quarantine. Despite these intimidating figures, however, only 46 coronavirus patients are currently hospitalized, with 21 of them in serious condition.

“Israel is in a totally different situation than in the past,” said Prof. Arnon Afek, the deputy director of Sheba Medical Center and a member of the advisory team of experts. “With vaccination rates of 65 percent in the general population and 90 percent among older people, the disease has changed, and thus the approach to the disease must change.”

Today, he added, there is no need to spread unnecessary panic. “We see from global data that despite the spread and high incidence of illness from the delta variant, the rate of serious illness has not risen. That completely changes the picture. It allows us to study the virus and live with it.”

Health Ministry officials and other professionals agree that the most significant way to cope with the new outbreak is to raise the vaccination rate. Last weekend, Dr. Amir Huppert from the Gertner Institute and Prof. Nir Gavish presented a model to experts and decision makers, showing that raising the vaccination rate would have a dramatic effect on the virus’ spread and the number of potential COVID-19 deaths.

The model assumes that the delta variant, first identified in India, is 1.5 times more infectious than the alpha variant first identified in the United Kingdom, and that the vaccine is around 80 percent effective against it (compared to 90 percent for the alpha variant). On this basis, and on the assumption that the two variants’ other characteristics are similar, it offers four scenarios.

If no efforts are made to contain the spread of the coronavirus and immunization rates remain as they are today, serious infections are projected to reach their peak during the winter, but hospitals will likely be able to cope. In this scenario, some 1,400 deaths are to be expected, mostly among elderly but also a significant number of infections is be expected among vaccinated people.

In the second scenario, in which 250,000 more Israelis get vaccinated by September, the number of expected deaths during the winter months will stand at around 1,000.

In the third scenario, in which 500,000 more people are inoculated in the coming months, only about 600 deaths are expected. And if 750,000 more people get vaccinated this summer, the number of projected deaths plunges to 200.

If the delta variant is only 10 percent more capable of breaking through the vaccine’s protection than the alpha variant, and if Israel does manage to vaccinate another 500,000 to 700,000 people in the coming months, “we can go back to normal,” said one of the experts who worked on the model. However, “If the variant’s ability to break through the vaccine’s protection is higher, it completely changes the picture. The variable of infection prevention is ultimately the most important variable, because all the other consequences are derived from it.”

A mall in Givatayim last week.Credit: Hadas Parush

Even though the national campaign to up the vaccination rate is focused on children aged 12-15, the age group that poses the highest risk is 30- to 50-year-olds. “This age group is most dangerous in terms of spreading the disease, partly due to their distribution, their presence at critical junctions, in organizations and workplaces as well as their contact with the older population,” he said.

More than 1.2 million Israelis eligible for the vaccine still haven’t had the shot; among them are 260,000 people aged 30 to 50 – 17 percent of the age group. Some 240,000 people over 50 have yet to be immunized, constituting 13 percent of the group. Some 70,000 children aged 12-15 have been vaccinated, of the more than 550,000 children that age. Among those aged 16 to 19, the vaccination rate is 70 percent, with 123,000 teens that are yet to be vaccinated.

At this point, the pace of immunization is significantly slower than when the vaccination campaign began in December. On Monday, only about 17,800 Israelis were vaccinated, most of them people who had recovered from COVID-19 or were receiving a second dose. In the peak days of the operation, vaccinations reached more than 230,000 a day. It seems that the ultimatum of expiring vaccines, which gives a deadline for the first dose by July 9, is not spurring people to get vaccinated, leaving hundreds of thousands of adults unprotected.

“In terms of implementation and supply, we have no problem, and we can vaccinate in much larger numbers,” said Haim Fernandes, director of the Leumit HMO. “The problem is demand.”

Israel has 1.2 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine that will expire on July 30, which means the first vaccine must be given no later than next Friday, July 9. According to health care system sources, efforts are being made to get Pfizer to expedite the next deliveries of vaccines, and to obtain additional doses.

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