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What The World Can (And Can’t) Learn From Israel’s COVID-19 Vaccination Sprint

Even if its success can't be reproduced on a global scale, Israel’s rapid rollout is a real-life test of the effectiveness of coronavirus vaccines.

For media-obsessed Benjamin Netanyahu, being first in line to receive the coronavirus vaccine was an opportunity the Israeli prime minister was never going to turn down.

With March elections fast approaching, global headlines paying tribute to the pace of Israel’s vaccine rollout could prove to be the perfect antidote to persuade voters to forget about Netanyahu’s corruption trial, and the economic damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I have brought the vaccines and you are giving the vaccines,” Netanyahu told health workers at a clinic in an Arab town in northern Israel as he implored residents to get the shot. “The whole world is amazed at Israel. They are writing that Israel is a wonder.”

In just over two weeks, the country has given first shots of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine to more than 1.5 million people ― almost 20% of the population and more than 70% of citizens aged 60 or older. That’s the highest level in the world on a per capita basis, according to Our World in Data.

Now, because of its advanced position, scientists believe Israel will provide a priceless global preview into the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.

Israel’s strategy

Israel fired the starting gun on its campaign on Dec. 19, with vaccinations now being administered in 300 specialist centers. The country’s free public health system offers appointments by text message.

The head of Britain’s National Health Service, Simon Stevens, said on Thursday that Israel’s high vaccination rates were at least in part due to its decision to conduct more injections at larger centers.

With infrastructure and logistics among the most advanced in the world and a highly trained military managing distribution, Israel has also benefited from a relatively high population density. The country’s 9 million people are easier to reach, allowing faster vaccine deployment.

Israel’s population is relatively small compared to the U.S., France and U.K. The vaccine doses delivered daily by Pfizer are more than sufficient, and Israel distributes each dose quickly to optimize supplies.

A large vaccination centre open by the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality and Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center pictured on December 31, 2020.
JACK GUEZ via Getty Images
A large vaccination centre open by the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality and Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center pictured on December 31, 2020.

The failure of some European countries to distribute all their shots has caused anger across the continent. In Spain, the first national figures released Monday revealed in the first eight days after vaccinations began, just 82,834 of the 718,535 vaccines delivered to regional governments had been used.

As of Tuesday, 180,000 jabs had been administered in Italy, out of the almost 470,000 Pfizer-BioNTech doses delivered from Dec. 30 to Jan. 1, meaning less than half of available doses had been used.

The U.S. has been plagued by even worse delays. Just 31% of the available doses had been administered, CNN reported this week.

Although people over age 60 are considered a priority in Israel, many younger people have also been injected. In order not to waste the temperature-sensitive Pfizer-BioNtech shot, centers often give the vaccine to walk-ins outside the high-risk cohort at the end of the day, to avoid thawed doses going to waste.

Some of the leftovers have been due to mistrust of the vaccine within Arab communities. Turnout for vaccines has been low among Arabs, who make up 21% of Israel’s population, and among Jerusalem Palestinians.

For the time being, Israel has not announced any plans to distribute vaccines in the West Bank and Gaza. Instead, those areas are dependent on the U.N. to deliver vaccines at a still-unspecified time, The Associated Press reported.

‘A model for the world’

Israel since Dec. 27 has been in its third national lockdown. The country tightened restrictions again on Friday with the number of cases climbing to around 8,000 a day, the highest in months, Reuters reported.

The country has recorded more than 450,000 cases and 3,512 deaths since the start of the pandemic. According to government and central bank estimates, the tightened lockdown will cost the economy as much as 4.0 billion shekels ($1.3 billion) a week.

Riding on the strong demand to return to normal and political necessity for Netanyahu, the prime minister said Thursday that agreements with Pfizer mean that all Israelis over the age of 16 would be able to be inoculated by the end of March, or perhaps earlier.

“As part of the agreement (with Pfizer), we agreed that Israel would serve as a model nation, a model for the world in the swift vaccination of an entire country,” Netanyahu said.

This week Israel received its first shipment of some 100,000 vaccine doses from Moderna. If the vaccination program maintains its speed, the country hopes to emege from the pandemic as early as February.

Israel bets, the world watches

There is currently no proof that vaccines reduce spread of COVID-19, but scientists believe Israel could become the key test case into the effectiveness of mass vaccination as a way to both protect against the coronavirus and its transmission. In addition to reducing the occurrence of severe forms, there are hopes the vaccine could reduce the spread of the virus. Some reports suggest the government is in the advanced stages of creating a digital vaccine passport.

“It’s a good bet. The vaccine protects and we have no other alternatives. There is also nothing to indicate that the vaccine cannot participate in collective immunity,” said a leading epidemiologist, Catherine Hill, per HuffPost France.

Israelis wait to receive coronavirus vaccine at a COVID-19 vaccination center, set up on a basketball court in Hod Hasharon, near Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday Jan. 6, 2021.
Israelis wait to receive coronavirus vaccine at a COVID-19 vaccination center, set up on a basketball court in Hod Hasharon, near Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday Jan. 6, 2021.

But the country’s ambitious goal of a partial return to normality within weeks has also been met with skepticism. Immunologist Cecil Czerkinsky, the director of research at France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research, said vaccines by injection rarely prevent transmission of the virus.

“Collective immunity in March in Israel? I don’t believe it,” said Czerkinsky.

Whatever the outcome, Israel’s vaccine sprint is being watched closely by scientists as a test of the efficacy.

“At this speed, we can expect a significant drop in the number of people hospitalized at the end of February,” said Czerkinsky.

Jean-Louis Montastruc, a member of the France’s academy of sciences, told HuffPost France that Israel will provide a “real-life assessment” that the vaccine is as effective as the studies show, and that it is without serious side effects.

“To date there are no new side effects from Israel,” Montastruc said.

Antoine Beau of HuffPost France contributed to this report

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