Following Monday’s announcement by the Massachusetts-based firm Moderna that interim results from Phase 3 trials of its coronavirus vaccine show it to be almost 95 percent effective, Israel can breathe a sigh of relief.
The Israeli government has a contact with Moderna for the supply of the vaccine for 2 million Israelis.
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When combined with the contract that the government signed last week with Pfizer, which has also shown highly promising results for its own vaccine, on paper Israel has options for enough vaccines for 6 million of the country’s population of 9 million. That’s more than enough to put the pandemic behind us – assuming of course that the vaccines are effective and safe, that the logistical challenges involved in transporting them are met and that they become available within a reasonable period of time.
But there’s also another burning question. Will the Israeli public decide to get vaccinated? The answer is not simple. The hot topic on social media over the past week has been whether people would get the shot if coronavirus vaccinations were available tomorrow. The responses are varied, to put it mildly.
Despite the suffering and disruption of normal life that the pandemic has wreaked upon us all, there doesn’t appear to be universal enthusiasm to get the new vaccine when it becomes available. In addition to comments such as, “Of course I’ll get it” and “No way,” another common response was: “First I’d like to see our leaders and the heads of the health care system get vaccinated, and only then will I decide,” or “After other people get vaccinated, we’ll see.”
The reactions are understandable. The public has experience with leaders who instead of declaring “follow me” and acting accordingly, make tough decisions that they then don’t follow themselves.
These are entirely new vaccines that have been developed on an expedited basis – quicker than any other vaccine ever. They do appear to be safe, but not enough time has elapsed in trials to prove that they will not have long-term side effects.
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The vaccination campaign involves challenges that the government has never had to face.
Beyond the huge logistical task, in the case of the Pfizer vaccine, of transporting vaccines at temperatures of minus 70 degrees Celsius (-94 degrees Fahrenheit), there is the matter of assuring the public that the vaccines are safe.
The fact that the pharmaceutical companies saw to it to have legislation passed in the United States relieving them of liability for any harm caused by the vaccines and the fact that some of the firms may be signing contracts with other countries with similar provisions, doesn’t boost the public’s confidence.
The Israeli government has also agreed to sign contracts absolving the companies of future damages, but it is difficult to find fault with that: The power under the circumstances is entirely in the companies’ hands. It is they who hold the key to putting an end to the pandemic nightmare that the world has been going through this year.
The government is also right to be concerned. When it comes to vaccines, mishaps are a particularly sensitive subject. Past experience shows that even unfounded rumors regarding harm from a vaccine, like those that surfaced with respect to the papilloma vaccine against cervical cancer, or even regarding routine flu vaccines, spark major concern and affect many people’s readiness to be vaccinated.
It’s interesting, by way of example, that reports that the coronavirus itself has resulted in dozens of children in Israel being hospitalized in serious condition have not been met with similar concern. The coronavirus has killed more than 2,700 Israelis of all ages and more than 300 Israelis are in serious condition.
The sensitivity is also particularly great because any harm to the reputation of a vaccine also has an impact on other vaccines that Israelis routinely receive – in very impressive numbers. The government cannot allow current vaccination rates to be undermined. Vaccines are the most important medical technology available when it comes to public health. Anything that interferes with that effort plays into the hands of vocal anti-vaxxers, and even worse, could reduce the routine administration of other important vaccines.
What can officials at the Health Ministry do in this regard? First, they should certainly stick to the principle that medical technology has to meet the standards set by recognized regulatory agencies abroad, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as well as those set by the Israeli Health Ministry. That means not rushing to make the Russian COVID-19 vaccine available in Israel, as least until it gets approved in countries that have regulatory standards at least on par with those of Israel.
Of course, the whole world is eager to obtain coronavirus vaccines. Countries are looking to purchase vaccines from as many companies as possible to avoid putting all their eggs in one basket. And one can assume, nevertheless, that the issue of safety won’t be neglected in the process.
In addition, even if it sounds somewhat trivial, the vaccination effort will require a widescale, direct information campaign with the maximum possible degree of transparency. Any indication that certain details are not being disclosed would greatly undermine public confidence and play into the hands of anyone trying to cast doubt or sow fear regarding the process.
Finally, we should again consider comments on social media by people who say they will only get vaccinated when they see the country’s leaders doing so. That’s not a joke or a defiant remark. This needs to be borne in mind by officials seeking to enlist the public to participate in a responsible and comprehensive vaccination campaign. Leading by personal example in this regard is essential.