Israel has managed to vaccinate more than half of its population against COVID-19 in just five weeks, having a dramatic impact on its infection rate.
It’s by far the highest percentage in the world, and most of the vaccines used in Israel so far have come from the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.
Israel has even set the ambitious target of having 80 per cent of its 9 million citizens fully vaccinated by May.
The swift vaccination program will help Pzifer understand how its vaccine performs among different age groups.
But not everyone is onboard with Israel’s plan.
So, what exactly is Israel doing?
Israelis began receiving first shots of the vaccine developed by Pfizer on December 19.
Since then, roughly 55 per cent of the population has received at least one shot from the two-shot regimen, according to Bloomberg’s COVID vaccine tracker.
Nearly 20 per cent of Israelis have received the full two doses, meaning they’re fully vaccinated.
It’s good news for a country that is currently considered one of the world’s worst COVID-19 hotspots.
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Tel Aviv mum Ayelet Klartag was desperate to get vaccinated quickly as the country was gripped by what some scientists are calling a third wave.
“We left the kids at home to try and get vaccinated at the big complex in Tel Aviv,” the 40-year-old said.
“We didn’t succeed. And every time we came home to our kids we were saying, ‘OK, we didn’t get vaccinated today. Sorry.'”
But after several weeks of waiting, Ms Klartag received notification from Israeli health services that her time to get vaccinated had finally arrived.
“We left the kids at home and went. It felt like a very special day.”
Israel’s program could be good news for the world
Israel has a universal healthcare system and every citizen has a digital health record.
That has proven to be very attractive for Pfizer, which has signed an agreement with Israel for anonymised data on vaccine recipients, including age, gender and demographic information.
It’s hoped that the real-world data can add to the knowledge on how the vaccine is performing, and if objectives like herd immunity are achievable.
It will also help scientists understand how new coronavirus variants will perform with the currently available vaccines.
What do Israel’s early results show?
Initial data shows the Pfizer vaccine is performing well, revealing a drop in infection rates after one shot.
The chance of testing positive two weeks after receiving the first injection is 33 per cent lower than the average, unvaccinated person’s chance, according to Professor Ran Balicer, an epidemiologist at Israel’s largest healthcare provider Clalit Health Services.
Analysis from Maccabi Healthcare Services, another Israeli healthcare provider, reported similar results.
But it’s still early days.
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The information is preliminary and not yet peer-reviewed. It’s also not a clinical trial and vaccinations started with older and more vulnerable patients.
And while the vaccine has proven effective at stopping people becoming moderately or seriously ill from COVID-19, it’s still not known if the vaccine stops the transmission of the virus from the vaccinated to the unvaccinated.
Still, Hassan Vally, an Associate Professor at La Trobe University says the early results are “fantastic”.
“I think one of the concerns that we have is that rolling out the vaccine in the real world has the potential to not give you as good results as the clinical trials, which are in a very controlled situation,” he says.
“So if anything, this is kind of showing that in the ideal situation, this vaccine performs amazingly well.”
This all sounds pretty good. Why are some people unhappy?
Some advocacy groups have raised privacy and ethical concerns about the deal between Israel’s health services and Pzifer to share data about people who received the shots.
They say key information has been redacted from the publicly released agreement and questioned why data should be provided to a for-profit US pharmaceutical company.
“There is concern in Israel, in terms of what data is being shared with Pfizer,” says Professor Aditya Goenka from the Department of Economics at the University of Birmingham.
“It is more controversial because prior to this, there was a case where some of the information in terms of who had been infected was shared with the Internal Security Service without due authorisation.”
But what about the new variants of COVID-19?
That’s the big unknown, but experts don’t think it’ll be too much of a problem just yet.
Some of the newer variants of COVID-19, including the B.1.1.7 strain, and the UK strain, have not yet been reported in Israel.
However, the South African variant has already arrived, with the country’s Ministry of Health reporting that at least 30 cases have been detected.
Israel has recently extended its ban on international flights until Sunday, in an attempt to keep the new strains out of the country.
That means we don’t have a clear picture yet on how Pfizer’s vaccine performs on the new variants.
But Dr Hassan Vally says it’s not worth worrying about too much just yet.
“I think we’ve just got to temper our response to these variants,” he says.
“[We need to] understand it doesn’t mean that the current vaccines aren’t going to work, it just might mean that their efficacy might be reduced a little bit.
“It’s important just to get vaccines out there. And we clearly have vaccines that are working.”