Large parts of Europe are currently experiencing a massive COVID-19 outbreak, prompting a number of countries to impose lockdowns and other major restrictions. What can these countries learn from the experience of Israel, which experienced another wave of the pandemic over the summer and is now almost back to normal – amid minimal restrictions and an open commercial scene?
Israeli experts who spoke with Haaretz this week emphasized the importance of Israel’s booster vaccination campaign, which began in August just as the fourth COVID wave in the country was beginning to spike. Israel managed to bring down the case numbers without a national lockdown.
The fourth wave in Israel began in July as the delta variant spread. By that point, most Israelis had received two vaccine doses, but the effectiveness of the doses was waning. Since Israel was one of the first countries to initiate a massive and swift vaccination campaign, it was also early in witnessing the waning of protection from the vaccine – something that became apparent among many Israelis some six months after receiving their second dose. The ebbing immunity led to a jump in severe coronavirus cases among vaccinated Israelis.
Israel’s health authorities then decided to recommend a booster shot – a third dose of the vaccine, offered at first to Israelis 60 and over and later to all those 12 and over. Three weeks after the booster campaign began, a clear shift was apparent in the country’s COVID data. The number of cases among vaccinated people began to drop. And by contrast, despite representing just 15 percent of those eligible for vaccination, the unvaccinated became a majority of the severe COVID cases.
In other words, COVID had become a pandemic of the unvaccinated in Israel once the boosters began kicking in. By September, overall case numbers were beginning to trend downward. Throughout this period, and unlike the three prior waves of the coronavirus, Israel’s government didn't impose a lockdown on the country and didn't shut down schools, retail activity or cultural events.
Israeli experts now see Europe encountering the same problem that Israel faced over the summer, prior to the Israeli booster campaign. Europeans who received their second vaccine dose months ago are beginning to experience waning immunity. About 65 percent of the population of the European Economic Area – which includes Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in addition to the European Union – have received two doses, according to figures from the European Union, but the pace of vaccination has slowed in recent months.
Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, who heads the school of public health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians, said Israel’s experience in dealing with the delta variant proves that “waning immunity after the second dose is now already established and occurs in all age groups.”
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The current increase in European infection rates can be attributed to “a combination of the delta variant and waning immunity,” he explained, adding that beyond booster campaigns, more needs to be done to reach out to under-vaccinated populations.
Norway, which so far has only administered a third dose to those 65 and older, is gearing up to offer it to everyone 18 and over, the government said on Friday. As of December 1, Italy will be offering a third dose to people 40 and over. And on Monday, British officials said the government would extend its booster shot campaign to people between the ages of 40 and 49.
Prof. Eyal Leshem, the director of the Center for Travel Medicine and Tropical Diseases at Sheba Medical Center outside Tel Aviv, said the most important lesson that Europeans can learn from Israel’s experience is that the protection provided by the vaccine wanes. Countries with high vaccination rates “may have been able to prevent the current wave of infections by offering the booster to the entire population rather than focusing on the elderly,” he added.
The booster shot is being touted not only by Israeli experts, but also by leading American health officials. Over the weekend, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview that Israel’s campaign proved the impact and importance of providing a third vaccine dose to those already vaccinated with two doses.
Reuters contributed to this report.