'Vaccines Work, No Doubt About It': Israel’s Top COVID Expert Answers Your Questions

In a Q&A with Haaretz readers, Prof. Ran Balicer explains what Israel needs to do better to stop the next variant from running rampant and says we should get used to the idea of COVID booster shots

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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An Israeli man about to receive a third COVID jab at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, last week
An Israeli man about to receive a third COVID jab at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, last week Credit: Reuters
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

Haaretz hosted Prof. Ran Balicer, the chairman of Israel’s expert panel on COVID-19, for a special Zoom briefing Wednesday on the delta variant’s spread in Israel and the impact of the country’s vaccination effort.

Israel was lauded as a global leader in vaccinations and deemed “the first country in the world to get over COVID.” But in recent weeks, the delta variant has taken the country by storm and its spread has forced Israel’s new government to bring back old restrictions – and even float the idea of another national lockdown.

Experts explain: If most Israelis are vaccinated, why is COVID surging?

Haaretz writers Allison Kaplan Sommer and Amir Tibon discussed the ongoing battle between the variant and the vaccine with Prof. Balicer in an hour-long session. Haaretz readers from all over the world were invited to submit questions to him on the subject, and here are some of his responses...

Can you say that right now, here in Israel, the data shows us that people who are not vaccinated are at a higher risk of getting severe illness from COVID-19, including the delta variant? And if that’s the case, why is Israel enacting new restrictions and considering another lockdown?

“Absolutely, there’s no question about that, it’s quite obvious. You can see this in the most simple graphs published by the Health Ministry. When you look at Israelis above the age of 60 and you examine severe illness rates – not numbers, rates, which means the number of illnesses per a specific number of the population – then what you see is that among those who are unvaccinated, there’s a considerably higher rate of severe illness than among the vaccinated.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visiting a vaccination site in Jerusalem after Israel started giving a third vaccine shot to the over 60s and the most at-risk. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“You can see vaccine effectiveness from those Health Ministry numbers, but we’re also now involved in much more sophisticated analytical research that’s trying to tease out the exact measures of vaccine effectiveness for severe cases. Very soon, we’ll be able to release our first assessments that were properly, meticulously done, which will show vaccine effectiveness. It’s already quite clear from our interim analysis that vaccine effectiveness for severe illness is very good.

“But that being said, when you have a problem in vaccine effectiveness against mild illness and infection, then disease dissemination continues to happen unchecked – and unless you introduce non-pharmaceutical interventions of sorts into the equation, the doubling of cases will eventually hit your hospital capacity.”

Israel recently started to give a third booster shot to its elderly population. Do you think we’ll all start to get a shot against COVID-19 every year or half a year? Is that going to be the new normal, like getting a flu shot in the winter?

“This will not be unprecedented, right? We take our flu shot annually and we don’t complain that we need to take it again if we had it last year; we understand that because the flu virus changes every season, it’s necessary for us to boost the response. We’ve been accepting this for many years. Although COVID is not a seasonal virus, it’s definitely conceivable [that we’ll get a shot seasonally or annually].”

Prof. Ran Balicer.Credit: Eyal Toueg

Do you think we’ll see a return in the coming months to the reality that Israel experienced in June, when the economy was fully open and even masks indoors were deemed no longer necessary?

“We will get to a point when we’ll be able to do that again, yes. I believe that. We’ll have to maintain much more vigilance at the border and in responding to new variants very early, but with proper vaccination we can see a sustained, continued decline of the virus’ activity. In fact, at that point, if it will continue to circulate to some degree in the population, that’s not a bad thing – it will maintain the antibody levels and immunity. And as long as people are protected, especially the older age groups, it’s not a problem.”

Should I wear a mask when visiting my elderly parents these days? Is it safe to send my unvaccinated child to summer camp?

A woman visiting an elderly relative on the coronavirus ward at Herzog Medical Center in Jerusalem.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“Let’s focus for a second on the issue of how one should behave. Everybody needs to understand that it’s an issue of personal and family-wide risk management. There’s no right or wrong answer. If you want to avoid any and all risks of getting COVID-19, close the door, lock it and throw away the key, and we’ll see you again in three to six months. This is one option.

“Every other behavior is risk-taking, and you need to manage the risk of being infected, which depends on whether or not you’re vaccinated, whether or not you’re wearing masks, whether or not you keep distance and wash your hands. All of this reduces the risk for being infected and infecting others.

“Let’s take the most extreme example: An older relative who can’t get vaccinated for some reason and one wants to bring their unvaccinated child to visit that relative after they spent a day in day care. That does not sound like a very safe choice, and if it was my child I would have not been in favor of that.

“But if we’re talking about a vaccinated 13-year-old who wants to go see their vaccinated grandmother, and they meet in the open air, with proper distance, with masks – I think this is exceedingly appropriate in terms of risk management, because social isolation is as risky in several instances as COVID-19.

“As for all the cases in between these examples, it’s a question of risk management and balancing, and what measures you can take to reduce the risks.”

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