Throughout the vaccine stage of the coronavirus pandemic, many eyes have been on the nation of Israel.
Israel has suffered three waves of the pandemic, which have also coincided with political turmoil. No government had yet been formed following the early March elections prior to the start of the pandemic in Israel, and while a National Unity Government was formed in May, another election—Israel’s fourth since 2019—is set for March 23.
The nation suffered some major outbreaks and was also struck by the British variant of the virus.
In recent months, Israel has embarked on an ambitious vaccination program, one that has had observers watching closely. If a small country with a small population can vaccinate a large percentage of its population, and do it relatively quickly, it will likely have lessons in how successful vaccination programs can work.
There have been many indications that Israel’s vaccine rollout is working.
“Good news from Israel. Researchers are seeing signs that COVID-19 vaccines are helping to curb infections and hospitalizations among older people, almost 6 weeks after shots were rolled out in that group,” Nature reported in early February. “Close to 90% of people aged 60 and older in the country have received their first dose of Pfizer’s 2-dose vaccine so far. Now, data collected by Israel’s Ministry of Health show that there was a 41% drop in confirmed COVID-19 infections in that age group, and a 31% drop in hospitalizations from mid-January to early February.”
“What we see here are early and very encouraging signs that the vaccine is working in the population,” Florian Krammer, a virologist at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, told Nature.
As of Sunday, per Times of Israel, 4.3 million Israelis had received at least one vaccine dose, and three million had received both, out of a population of nine million.
There was more good news for Israel’s vaccine-fighting efforts in a preliminary study specifically about the Pfizer Inc./BioNTech SE vaccine.
According to Bloomberg News, the study says those vaccines were “89.4% effective at preventing laboratory-confirmed infections,” based on the data in Israel. The Israeli government has said that the Pfizer shot in 99 percent effective.
That study also showed that the Pfizer vaccine “may also prevent asymptomatic carriers from spreading the virus.”
“The pace of the Israeli vaccination roll out is indeed very [impressive],” Dr. Hagai Levine, an epidemiologist at Israel’s Hadassah Hospital/Hebrew University, told The National Interest. “In several weeks, the vast majority of people at risk were vaccinated. We already see how effective is the vaccine in real life in prevention of morbidity and mortality among vaccinated by more than 90%.”
“This is an important issue globally and locally, to see if we can reach elimination rather than control,” Dr. Levine said. “At any time point, we should be aware of the possibility of new variants, with lower effectiveness of the vaccine. Good ongoing surveillance and public health infrastructure is essential.”
The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that following the vaccination effort, Israel has “lifted restrictions on most commerce and public activity, opening malls, markets and museums.”
So, what can the United States learn from Israel’s experience in dealing with the virus?
“Universal community health coverage is highly effective and efficient,” Dr. Levine said. “We have a great system of semi-public preventive and community health system. Be prepared, be flexible approach is very good.”
Of course, there’s one other aspect of Israel’s vaccine efforts that’s also gotten a great deal of attention. Israel has been criticized, since the start of the vaccination effort, for not offering to vaccinate the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The Times of Israel said that all citizens of Israel proper, including Jews and Arabs, have been offered the vaccine, as have Palestinians in East Jerusalem.
But that offer has not been extended to Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza. The Palestinians in those areas have received some vaccines from international efforts such as Covax. Israel last week temporarily blocked a shipment of Russia’s Sputnik vaccine to the Gaza Strip, before ultimately allowing it.
The controversy was referenced in an instantly controversial Saturday Night Live Weekend Update joke over the weekend, in which anchor Michael Che joked that “Israel is reporting that they’ve vaccinated half of their population, and I’m gonna guess it’s the Jewish half.” Che has been asked to apologize for the joke by the American Jewish Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and Israel’s ambassador to the United States.
Israel agreed earlier this week to vaccinate 100,000 Palestinians who regularly cross into Israel for work, the Washington Post reported. Those shots, the Post said, will be administered at “ad hoc centers set up along the line dividing Israel from the West Bank.” That agreement was reached following what was described as a rare meeting between Israeli and Palestinian officials in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
The debate, per The New York Times, is over who is ultimately responsible for providing health care in occupied territory.
“To Israel’s critics, international law obligates Israel to give Palestinians access to vaccines comparable to what it offers its own citizens,” the Times said in an analysis. “But supporters of Israel’s policies contend that the Palestinians assumed responsibility for health services for their population when they signed the Oslo Accords in the 1990s.”
“We want everyone in the area to be vaccinated, but the Palestinian Authority is the party responsible for providing for the health of Palestinians,” Yoav Kish, Israel’s deputy health minister, said, according to the Times. “Our responsibility is to vaccinate our own population.”
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.