Proof of Vaccination Not Effective in Battling Omicron, Israeli Experts Warn

Some Israeli experts warn that program may give false sense of security ■ Ministry sources say extension of COVID vaccination pass mainly intended to give time to finalize new proposal

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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A diner shows her vaccination certificate at the entrance to a restaurant in Jerusalem, last month.
A diner shows her vaccination certificate at the entrance to a restaurant in Jerusalem, last month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

The Health Ministry is likely to recommend later this week that the government abolish the Green Pass program, which restricts entry into many venues to people who are vaccinated, recovered from the coronavirus or recently tested negative.

Many experts have argued for weeks that the Green Pass is pointless given the current high infection rate. Some have even warned that it creates a false sense of security that causes people to neglect other precautions.

Despite this, the cabinet decided on Sunday to leave the pass in force at most venues for another week, at schools until February 27 and healthcare facilities until March 1.

But ministry sources said the extension was mainly intended to give the ministry time to finalize its own recommendation, which is likely to be to abolish the pass or at least greatly reduce the number of places where it is required. The ministry will make its proposal known at this week’s coronavirus cabinet meeting.

“We need another week, both to analyze the data and to think about what changes we want to make,” one source said, adding that the ministry is rethinking not just the Green Pass but other restrictions on gatherings. “But I believe that we’ll go in the direction of cancelation.

“I’m not convinced the Green Pass does more harm than good from the standpoint of infection,” he explained. “But it’s quite possible that it provides too small a benefit to justify the whole package – the effort and logistics it requires.”

The source said the ministry was waiting for an analysis of the dynamics of infection among vaccinated people to be finalized before making its final decision.

Due to the high rates of contagion from the omicron variant, the Green Pass has begun looking increasingly irrelevant. During the first three weeks of January, the number of new coronavirus cases reached 1.6 million, exceeding the total for all of 2021. That, experts said, makes it increasingly evident that the pass is no longer effective in preventing infection, nor does it appear to encourage vaccination.

“It’s not possible today to rely on vaccination or recovery to prevent infection. It appears the Green Pass is no longer effective in reducing the risk of infection,” a meeting last Tuesday of the government’s advisory panel on the coronavirus concluded. By contrast, it said, “we should continue encouraging the use of masks.”

Police enforcing the Green Pass in a mall in Tel Aviv Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Similarly, at a January 22 meeting, the expert panel concluded that “given the change in the morbidity picture and the low effectiveness of the booster in preventing infection, the Green Pass no longer provides an effective solution to the spread of the omicron variant in indoor spaces.”

Moreover, it warned, there was a risk “of creating a false sense of protection among Green Pass holders, especially at indoor activities. That could lead to riskier behavior and a greater likelihood of infection. And in any case, it noted, there had been a “decline in strict enforcement of the Green Pass regulations.”

The lax enforcement is increasingly evident: Over the last seven days, 470,000 new cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed, and there is thought to be a similar or even higher number of cases that haven’t been reported because people either never got tested or tested themselves at home. Yet only 36 citations were issued to businesses for violating Green Pass regulations that same week, and just eight for violating the so-called Purple Pass, which restricts the number of customers allowed in a location at any one time.

Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, who heads Ben-Gurion University’s School of Public Health, said the goal of the Green Pass had always been to create “as safe an epidemiological space as possible,” but if it's not fulfilling this purpose, its implementation becomes pointless. He recommended limiting it to “for instance, hospitals” and combining it with greater use of rapid tests.

“Epidemiological data on the effectiveness of the Green Pass should have been collected and published from when it first went into use,” he said. “And we should remember that the Green Pass could serve us again in the future if needed, if the epidemiological data support it again.

Diners show their vaccination certificate at the entrance to a restaurant in Jerusalem, last month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“But its use should always be proportionate and not as a way of compelling vaccination. People should be vaccinated because the vaccine has been proven to be safe and to prevent serious illness and death, though it’s less effective now at preventing infection,” said Davidovitch.

Unlike during previous waves of the virus, the omicron variant has infected large swathes of the vaccinated and recovered population as well as people with no immunity. Even among people vaccinated within the last 90 days, the vaccine’s ability to prevent infection has proven very limited.

Dr. Oren Kobiler, a virologist at Tel Aviv University, said that under the circumstances, “I think the Green Pass has given the vaccinated a false sense of security since omicron appeared. In my view, we should abolish it.”

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