The swift rollout of Israel's Covid-19 vaccination campaign has impressed the world. As of Wednesday, Israel had vaccinated nearly 1.6 million people, according to the Ministry of Health, 17.5% of the population, easily outstripping the rest of the world with the UAE in second place, having vaccinated 8.35% of its population and Bahrain in third place (4%). In second place among the OECD countries is the US, which has vaccinated 1.6% of its population while the UK and Denmark are the only other OECD countries to have managed to inoculate more than 1% of their citizens. Like it or not, Israelis have become the world's guinea pigs.
Over the past week the international media has been focusing on how Israel has been able to achieve this through, among other things, the efficiency of its highly digitalized, community-based HMO health funds. But very soon the world will be looking at Israel to see not only if the vaccine works but also, if and how the country is able to leverage the situation to come out of lockdown, and whether and how quickly it is able to defeat the virus.
Early indications suggest that the vaccine is actually working. Research by Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer found that 50% of a sample group of 300 Israelis who had received their first Pfizer jab already had enough antibodies to protect them against Covid-19 after two weeks. This is even before the second vaccination, due to be administered three weeks after the first. There have been no significant short-term side effects and if there are any long-term effects, as many anti-vaxxers and vaccination skeptics suggest, the rest of the world doesn't have time to wait and see what happens in Israel.
Israel's vaccination drive is running out of steam as its stock of vaccine runs down, with no major supplies expected until early next month. So even if Israel reaches over 20% of the population vaccinated in the coming days, with another 5% having had the virus, this would still seem to be well short of the holy grail of herd immunity. Minister of Health Yuli Edelstein has spoken about five million Israelis needing to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity but this is likely speculation rather than a hard scientific fact.
On the other hand, close to 60% of Israelis over 60 have been vaccinated. This could likely tempt Israel to open up the country, by early February, when all those already vaccinated have had their second dose, and allow the virus to run freely through the less vulnerable younger population. One suspects, however, that many of the 40% of over-60s who have not been vaccinated are in Israel's hardest hit haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and Arab minorities where suspicion about the vaccine is at its highest.
In any event, difficult decisions will have to be made, as throughout the crisis, with economic considerations balanced against morbidity and mortality rates.
The Israeli government has come under enormous criticism for its handling of the crisis, with three lockdowns, and inconsistent decisions over opening and closing the economy and education system. But the Israeli government, despite the country's complex social composition, has probably fared better than most democracies, with the exception of Australia and New Zealand, Scandinavia (except Sweden) and East Asia.
Tricky decisions will have to be made about when the number of people vaccinated will allow the relaxation of restrictions and how the planned 'green passport' fits into all this. To make matters more complicated for the Israeli government, these decisions will have to be taken in the midst of an election campaign (Knesset elections are scheduled for March 23), and all the pressures involved.
The world will be watching, either to follow Israel's example, or learn from its mistakes.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on January 7, 2021
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