Israel’s COVID Vaccine Success Is Making It a Global Research Lab

Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder
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An Israeli receiving the coronavirus vaccine in Jerusalem, January 2021.
An Israeli receiving the coronavirus vaccine in Jerusalem, January 2021.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder

When it comes to the rate of COVID-19 vaccinations, Israel is leaving the rest of the world in the dust, and that’s setting the country up to become a giant laboratory for studying the vaccine’s effectiveness and side effects.

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According to Our World in Data, a collaboration between the University of Oxford and Global Change Data Lab, more than 14% of Israelis were already inoculated by Monday. That was more than 10 times the rate for the United States and Britain and 40 times the rate for other Western countries such as Canada and Germany.

In fact, the Israeli rate is even higher after taking into account that children under 16 aren’t being vaccinated and they account for a third of the population. The absolute numbers are impressive – 1.4 million Israelis have been inoculated, the same number as in Russia, Germany, Italy, Canada, Spain and France combined.

If you ignore the chaos regarding how the vaccines have been allocated, Israel has become a case study on the impact of mass inoculation – whether the vaccination is slowing infection rates, the number of serious cases and mortality, at what point that began to happen if it did, how many people need to be vaccinated to achieve that and how long it takes for the vaccines to have an effect. These are just a few of the study areas.

“Israel has been producing and will continue to produce very unique assets in the future,” said Jonathan Adiri, the CEO of Healthy.io and a leading Israeli biomed entrepreneur. “The first is an operative asset – we proved that we were able to inoculate a large number of people in a short amount of time in the eye of a storm. We have a recipe for efficient vaccination of the population and have learned a lot – that’s data with tremendous value.”

Uri Shalit, an artificial-intelligence researcher at the Technion technology institute, said that the information being gathered in Israel will show how well the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine works when factors like refrigeration and the way the vaccine is injected are less ideal than in the controlled trials. Israel will also serve as a lab for researchers to discover whether the vaccine just prevents disease or also prevents contagion.

“I’m confident that the first articles coming out of Israel on the vaccine’s effect will have tremendous value and that the entire world is awaiting them,” Shalit said.

Data paradise Israel

The inoculation data is only part of the story. In recent decades, Israel has gathered, organized and carefully preserved medical data on its citizens. Everything from simple blood tests and headache complaints to sophisticated MRI scans and advanced surgical procedures is contained in the health care system’s databases.

Even before the coronavirus, that raw data had been much in demand around the world. That’s because the information is concentrated in databases of a small number of institutions, making it more easily accessible. Also, because of the high level of medicine practiced in Israel, the data draws a comprehensive picture of each person.

Another data asset is Israel's diverse population containing a wide range of religions and ethnicities.

All told, the country's high and rapid inoculation rates and its vast database of medical history is an unbeatable research combination. Israel is the only country in the world where every vaccine recipient has a complete medical file going back years, giving the country three important assets, Adiri said.

Jonathan Adiri, the CEO of Healthy.io and a leading Israeli biomed entrepreneur.Credit: Moti Milrod

The first is security – having such a data trove makes it easier to identify even rare side effects in the vaccinated population and whether sufferers have anything in common.

“In addition, there’s long-term follow-up,” Adiri said. “Maybe in three years the data will tell us things that we otherwise would have had a hard time identifying and explaining; for example, if there was a rise in Alzheimer’s cases among the vaccinated or whether it affects fertility. In Israel, we can know pretty quickly whether the fear is justified.”

mRNA treatments, too

Another asset has to do with medicines developed with mRNA, the technology used by both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna to create their vaccines, Adiri said.

For instance, a company developing a cancer treatment based on mRNA will want people to participate in trials based on their reaction to the vaccine. Screening will be much faster and more reliable if the company has the data on vaccine recipients, rather than just asking people to remember their vaccine experience.

The third asset is hard to quantify but is no less important, Adiri added.

“When there’s a lot of data, it’s reasonable to assume we’ll gain a lot of new and unexpected insights from all kinds of perspectives that right now are hard to imagine, like the impact on DNA,” he said. “These are insights for discovering new and surprising correlations between variables.”

Adiri said these assets belonged to everyone. “I think Israel has a national and humanitarian role to play and an opportunity to contribute to the world,” he said.

“It needs to come to the world on its own initiative and say, ‘We have a lot of information and we’re glad to share it,’ whether it’s operative, such as how to allocate vaccines or what to do with oversupplies, or whether it’s scientific knowledge.”

The flip side is protecting Israelis’ privacy. For two years the Health Ministry has been grappling with the question of how to best do that and is now preparing a draft framework. But the debate has only just begun.

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