Israel’s vaccine success

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday the 18th of February, 2021.

You’re listening to The World and Everything in It and we are happy you’ve joined us today. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. First up: Israel’s vaccine program.

Every nation is racing to vaccinate its population against COVID-19. One country outpaces all others: Israel.

Nearly half of Israelis have received at least one dose of the vaccine. The United Kingdom comes in second, with about one-quarter of its population vaccinated.

REICHARD: The United States? So far, just over one-tenth of our population’s been vaccinated. So many are looking to Israel for a glimmer of hope. What can we learn from the country that may become the first to achieve herd immunity? WORLD correspondent Jill Nelson reports.

AUDIO: [Soccer fans]

JILL NELSON, REPORTER: For nearly a year, Americans have been waiting in anticipation for a COVID-19 vaccine. Health officials say that’s the only thing that will bring down the death toll and bring a return to sporting events, concerts, and indoor gatherings. 

So when Israeli leaders announced they had secured enough of the Pfizer vaccine to inoculate everyone over 16 by the end of March, U.S. health experts took notice.

AUDIO: [Israeli music]

Israeli doctors and nurses celebrated the launch of their vaccination drive on December 20th. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in January there’s no time to waste.

NETANYAHU: You ask what’s the challenge? We’re in an arms race, except it’s not an arms race, it’s a race between vaccination and mutation.

Some say Israel quickly secured large numbers of vaccines by bidding the highest.

BAHAR: I kind of disagree. 

Dany Bahar is a senior fellow in the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution. He says money was only part of the equation.

BAHAR: I think the most important part is that Israel was giving and is giving to the pharmaceutical companies something that they really need and want, which is phase 4 of the test of the effectiveness of the vaccines. 

Israel has an advanced universal health care system that closely tracks its patients. Bahar says that means researchers can learn a lot about the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness in what has become the largest real-world trial.

BAHAR: There are very good news among everybody who’s been vaccinated with the two doses that the probability of hospitalizations or even getting strong disease have gone down dramatically, I mean to something very close to zero.

Israel released data in early February showing that 97 percent of virus deaths during the past month were among people who had not been vaccinated. It also had good news for those concerned about side effects: Less than 0.3 percent had symptoms significant enough to report to doctors after getting the Pfizer vaccine. Overall, that vaccine is showing 95 percent effectiveness.

But while deaths and hospitalizations have dramatically decreased among those 60 and older, the overall daily new cases of the coronavirus in Israel have not significantly decreased.

Andrew Noymer is an epidemiologist at the University of California in Irvine. He says the drop in new daily cases has plateaued in Israel, but the vaccine is working.

NOYMER: I think what’s probably happening is everyone is just sort of getting out and about more because of the vaccine, because of the confidence the vaccine gives us and that includes people who aren’t vaccinated yet.

Israel also began its vaccination drive when COVID cases were at their highest. The country enacted its third lockdown and banned all international flights in January. And the British variant of  COVID-19 which spreads more quickly has contributed to the country’s surge of cases. But so far the vaccine is proving effective against this new variant.

Noymer says Israel’s vaccination outcome won’t be exactly like America’s since it has a population of only 9 million in an area the size of New Jersey. But we can still learn from the Israeli experience.

NOYMER: I see Israel as a cautionary tale about thinking that the vaccine is going to be an absolute game changer like in a short time frame because the United State’s rollout is much more in dribs and drabs….than the Israeli roll out.

Israel’s fast-paced and highly organized vaccination drive hit a slowdown in February that could be instructive for other countries. Demand dropped by more than 50 percent from the month prior, and health officials are struggling to figure out why. Some attribute the decline to vaccine conspiracy theories circulating online. 

The United States could face a similar drop in demand. According to a recent study, just under half of Americans said they were very likely to get a COVID-19 vaccine. That could make it difficult to reach the threshold scientists say is necessary for herd immunity. One of the nation’s top infectious disease experts, Anthony Fauci, told CNN the percentage necessary herd immunity is likely much higher.

FAUCI: But I think we all have to be honest and humble. Nobody really knows for sure, but I think 70 to 85 percent for herd immunity for COVID-19 is a reasonable estimate, and in fact, most of my epidemiology colleagues agree with me.

Israel’s health department is looking for ways to promote the latest research about vaccine safety and provide incentives for those who get vaccinated. The Ministry of Health is issuing immunity passports that would grant access to larger events for those who have been vaccinated.

More data will be available within the next two weeks, after scientists analyze the results among younger Israelis and those with underlying health conditions. Noymer says he is watching for promising trends.

NOYMER: What I want to see in Israel is significant declines in new cases by around March 1st and significant declines in mortality by April 1st. 

That could be the good news for Americans to cling to when patience runs thin in the coming months.

NOYMER: We have to use the Israeli experience so that we don’t become the deer in the headlights in April and May when we get up to 50, 60 percent vaccinated, which I think we will because I expect the Johnson and Johnson vaccine to be authorized by the FDA.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Jill Nelson.

(AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner) An Israeli youth receives a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine during an event to encourage the vaccination of young Israelis at a vaccination center in the Israeli city of Holon near Tel Aviv, Monday, Feb. 15, 2021. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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