WASHINGTON – Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. official on infectious diseases and chief medical advisor to U.S. President Joe Biden, says Israel’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout has set a precedent for global vaccine distributions, and its unique national circumstances set it up for success.
“I can say without false flattery that Israel really did it right, but it also had the right sort of ingredients in its favor: the right size, the right health care system – everything was geared to be successful for what they did, and they did it really very well,” Fauci tells Haaretz.
Why Israeli-Russian politicians are flirting with the anti-vax vote. LISTEN
“To have over 80 in 100 people to receive a shot – the United States is somewhere around 18, just look at the difference there. Israel’s health system is quite uniform as a nation – perhaps due to size, location, and history,” says Fauci. “Despite differences Israelis have among themselves, when they need to pull together in an important task, they seem to do it very well.”
Roughly 4.2 million Israelis have received at least the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine – around 45.5 percent of the population – and the vaccination rate for those older than 60 is around 85 percent. Earlier this week, the health maintenance organization Maccabi indicated that Pfizer’s vaccine is 95 percent effective against the virus.
“Israel has a remarkable diminution in cases associated with the efficiency of their vaccine. It is another example of the scientific data, starting to point to the fact that the vaccine is important not only for the health of the individual to protect them against infection and disease, but it also has very important implications from a public health standpoint for interfering and diminishing the dynamics of the outbreak,” Fauci said at a press briefing on Wednesday.
Fauci notes that the American political system, with states having a great deal of autonomy from the central government, is not set up in a way to facilitate a rapid rollout like Israel’s. “The United States – a country that I love – has a different system,” he says. “It’s good in some respects, but when you’re dealing with a common enemy, you can have multiple ways of doing things and that’s one of the reasons we have not been as successful as we could have been thus far.”
Fauci is optimistic that the U.S. is heading in the right direction, but acknowledges that the sheer size of the American population presents difficulties not present in Israel. “We have much more cooperation between the federal government and states, we have a couple of really good vaccines we’re deploying. Our big problem is that we’re such a big country with 330-plus million people. We have a real discrepancy between supply and demand.”
- COVID in Israel: How many have already been vaccinated
- Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have said no to the COVID-19 vaccine: Why are they waiting?
- Israel reopens, with more COVID rules relaxed: Here's everything you need to know
Because of Israel’s size and the framework of its government, Fauci says, “it’s been able to lead the world in efficacy. Israel’s vaccinated so many people that you’re starting to see an effect on deaths and cases because a critical percentage of the population has been vaccinated. That’s what we hope to do in the next few months: get 70 to 85 percent of our population vaccinated. If we do, we’ll be in the same situation as Israel.”
Since Israel is so much farther ahead than the U.S. in its vaccine rollout, it is dealing with issues that are not yet on America’s radar, such as questions about excluding non-vaccinated people from public spaces and certain activities. Fauci says there is a balancing act – one that is unique to each country.
“In the United States, it is very difficult to mandate something from above because of the culture of states’ independence,” Fauci says, adding, “We’re [also] reluctant here to essentially infringe on the personal choices of people, and there’s a tension, but sometimes you have to mandate things in a crisis. So there’s a balance between encroachment on peoples’ rights, which no one wants to do, and the threat of the particular enemy that you’re dealing with – in this case, the virus.”
One commonality between Israel and the United States, however, is certain religious communities’ lax attitude toward distancing guidelines and their reluctance to get vaccinated. Recent Health Ministry figures show that roughly 10 percent of Israelis over 60 have not received the first dose of the vaccine, but among ultra-Orthodox in this age group, the number jumps to 30 percent.
While Fauci is hesitant to comment on the situation in Israel, he does note that it has presented an issue in America.
“It would be almost presumptuous for me to comment on [the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel], but some of the Orthodox Jewish communities around the New York City area have been very reluctant to obey mandates and get vaccinated,” Fauci says.
“We had that problem with the measles outbreak [in 2018] in the population in the northern part of the New York metropolitan area. They refused to get vaccinated and their level of vaccine went below a certain level that when a visitor from Israel that was infected with measles got into the community, there was a serious outbreak. It was only when they literally had a mandate that everybody get vaccinated. There was a lot of pushback with that,” Fauci recalls.
Fauci acknowledges that it is not easy. “It depends what the end point is,” he says. “If you have a serious outbreak, a person was fined if they didn’t get vaccinated. It’s very difficult to enforce something that has to do with a person’s own personal liberties, and that’s where you get into difficulty: You want to mandate it, but enforcing the mandate becomes a real problem, and the enforcement of it creates as much a problem as what the original problem is.”
Earlier this week Fauci was awarded Israel’s prestigious Dan David Prize in the public health category for his work during the coronavirus pandemic. Fauci, who will receive a $1 million prize for his efforts combatting the pandemic, quickly became the face of the U.S. government on matters relating to COVID-19 and has been a steadfast advocate for public health precautions over the past 12 months. He calls the recognition “quite humbling and very gratifying.”
“The Dan David Prize is one of the most important prizes in the world. It is an extraordinary honor and very humbling to be chosen by a jury of people in a country that has such a strong academic setting as Israel, to be chosen for such a prestigious prize. I’m delighted to have been chosen,” Fauci says. “Unfortunately, during this period when travel is not allowed because of the situation that I cannot go to Israel to receive it, but I think we can do it in a good way virtually and I’m looking forward to the ceremony in May.”