Israel has vaccinated nearly 20 percent of its population and is on track to achieving 100 percent in a matter of months, giving it the fastest vaccination rate of any country in the world. But with cases rising, the country imposed its third nationwide shutdown last Friday, sparking protests against tightened measures including the shuttering of schools.
Almost a month after rolling out its COVID-19 vaccination campaign, Israel leads the world in immunizations per capita. Last week, the country’s health minister announced that 1.37 million Israelis had received their first doses of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine.
Approximately 80 percent of Israelis over the age of 75 have been vaccinated, according to the CEO of Clalit Health Services. This means that the country’s death toll, already low by global standards, will likely witness a decline.
The achievement was immediately praised by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who stated that Israel is “ahead of the entire world” on Twitter.
The Israeli government had secured several million doses of the two-stage BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine early on and introduced an impressive campaign of its wide-scale distribution.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein cited being an “early bird” in launching negotiations with drug makers and securing large amounts of doses as reasons why Israel’s campaign has progressed so quickly.
The country’s digitized health care system has also played a significant role. In Israel, every citizen must register with one of the four nongovernmental health maintenance organizations that provide healthcare, and stick to it. This allows both better quality of monitoring and control and facilitates permanent maintenance of a sufficient number of primary care clinics in every neighbourhood or small town.
Indeed, the country’s vaccine programme has been so effective that it is currently running low on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Local health officials warned that they would need to take a two-week pause in the deployment of initial jabs to have enough second doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on hand to cover elderly and vulnerable members of the population, who already received their first jab.
Last Tuesday, the Moderna vaccine was approved. But it is unclear when the first doses will arrive. While director-general of the Israeli health ministry Chezy Levy anticipates the first batches to come in January, Health Minister Edelstein anticipates deliveries to commence in March.
The Moderna vaccine will further accelerate the vaccination campaign and potentially allow the country to achieve full vaccination by spring.
For Israel to achieve herd immunity, at least five million citizens need to be vaccinated or recovered from the pathogen, according to Chezy Levy. He further estimated that 1.8 million Israelis will have received both doses of the vaccine by the end of January.
Despite the campaign’s success, Israel won’t be able to avoid new lockdown measures. The country still struggles with a high COVID-19 infection rate. The death toll stands at 3,671 people at the time of this writing, and local healthcare officials have suggested that a third nationwide shutdown is needed to stop the pathogen’s spread.
“Full vaccination is only a week after the second dose. In the meantime, morbidity is rising quickly. Therefore, there’s no choice but a full and fast closure,” Yuli Edelstein wrote on Twitter.
The Health Ministry also reported 6,706 new cases on Monday and 1,044 people in serious condition, among them more than 250 intubated – apparently the highest number since the start of the pandemic. Coronavirus commissioner Nachman Ash also noted that some 30 cases of the British COVID-19 mutation were discovered, and that those individuals infected 189 others – an average of six people for every infected person.
Israel’s decision to impose a new lockdown underscores the fact that even the world’s fastest and most effective vaccination programme cannot stop the pandemic on its own. This raises questions about the prospects for containing the disease in other countries with less successful vaccination rates. If Israel is any indicator, then the availability of a vaccine – and even its efficient implementation – is only half the battle. Pandemic watchers and market forecasters would do well to take this into account when making overly optimistic predictions about the global post-COVID recovery.