After seeing it’s early vaccine successes undermined by the Delta variant, Israel’s COVID-19 vaccine booster drive is beginning to impact on the country’s high infection and severe illness rates, writes MedicalBrief.
However, in an interview with the Times of Israel, the country’s coronavirus czar, Prof Salman Zarka, conceded to “mistakes” and complacency over the virus.
Israel declared victory against COVID-19 two months ago, when the final restrictions were abolished, but Zarka said that it is clear now that “we only won the battle and the war is still here.” Preparations are needed for a possible fifth wave, he said. Zarka has argued passionately against lockdown, insisting that while the gatherings will lead to infections, it is part of living with the virus.
Delta hit Israel in June, just as the country began to reap the benefits of one of the world’s fastest vaccine roll-outs. With an open economy and most curbs scrapped, reports Reuters, Israel went from single-digit daily infections and zero deaths to around 7,500 daily cases last week, 600 people hospitalised in serious condition and more than 150 people dying in that week alone.
On 30 July, it began administering a third dose of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine to people over 60, the first country to do so. On Thursday it expanded eligibility to 30-year-olds and up, whose second dose was given at least five months prior, saying the age may drop further.
In the past 10 days, the pandemic is abating among the first age group, more than a million of whom have received a third vaccine dose.
The reproduction rate began falling steadily around 13 August, and has dipped below one, indicating that each infected person is transmitting the virus to fewer than one other person. “The numbers are still very high but what has changed is that the very high increase in the rate of infections and severe cases has diminished, as has the pace at which the pandemic is spreading,” said Eran Segal, data scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science and an adviser to the government.
“This is probably due to the third booster shots, an increase in people taking the first dose and the high number of people infected per week, possibly up to 100,000, who now have natural immunity.”
Evidence has emerged showing that while the vaccine is still highly effective in preventing serious illness, its protection diminishes with time, notes Reuters. But there is no consensus among scientists and agencies that a third dose is necessary, and the World Health Organisation has said more of the world should be vaccinated with a first dose before people receive a third dose.
Dvir Aran, biomedical data scientist at Technion, Israel’s Institute of Technology, said that while cases are retreating, other measures are needed alongside boosters to stop the pandemic. “It will take a long time until enough people get a third dose and until then thousands more people will getting seriously ill.”
Since Delta’s surge, Israel has reimposed indoor mask-wearing, limitations on gatherings, and ramped up rapid testing. Its “living with COVID” policy will be tested come September, when schools reopen after summer break and when the Jewish holiday season starts, with families traditionally gathering to celebrate.
This reality of living alongside the virus is likely to mean a long period of booster shots, masks, and efforts to avoid crowding, Zarka told Times of Israel.
Israel developed a reputation as the so-called vaccination nation, by inoculating early and widely. But as the country returned to normalcy in the spring, with suggestions that herd immunity had arrived, efforts to persuade the vaccine holdouts to roll up their sleeves eased off. And when teen vaccinations were launched in June, at first, the campaign was very gentle.
Now, a million eligible people out of a population just over 9 million are unvaccinated, including around 140,000 who are from the most at-risk age group: 50-plus. As well as easing off the vaccine push, Israel shut down some virus-fighting facilities, including the very successful Magen Avot program for protecting people in nursing homes.
While acknowledging the government’s mistakes, Zarka underlined that officials were pushed to formulate and fast-track policies without sufficient data.
“If you look at the outcomes, we can say we really made mistakes when we decided to get back fully to our regular life. But you know, for the last year and a half, all over the world and in Israel, we were making decisions without enough data.
“It’s a new virus we are learning about what will happen every day. We thought based on what we know about virology that COVID-19 would behave like flu or other viruses, but unfortunately the Delta surprised us in the short time we had it.”
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