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1 Mar 2021 4:14
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  •   Home > News > International

    Israel's coronavirus vaccine scheme is the fastest in the world. Now it's being put to the test

    Australia's vaccine scheme is only just getting started. But in Israel, where half its population has received at least one dose, the vaccinated are getting their old lives back, with gyms, pools and sporting grounds opening just for them.


    As Israel's vaccine campaign inches closer to completion, the world is watching closely for a glimpse into what life could be like after the coronavirus pandemic.

    So far the data from the world's fastest vaccination program is promising, but questions remain, chief among them: What will a post-vaccine society look like?

    This question in particular will be asked by Australian authorities as inoculations begin this week among frontline health workers and aged care residents.

    Israel has now eased restrictions across the country, but additional perks are being made available to those who have been vaccinated and can prove it using a government app known as "green badge".

    The result is Israel is becoming a sort of global experiment, one in which the rules of post-vaccine society and the effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine under real-world conditions are being put to the test.

    "We are now finally in the moment where we need to think how we return to the new normal," Nadav Davidovitch, a public health physician from Ben Gurion University, said.

    It is estimated about half of Israelis have received the first dose of Pfizer's two-shot regime. A third of people have received both shots.

    Those who have been given the two doses are allowed back into gyms, movie theatres and swimming pools, while their non-vaccinated counterparts will have to wait.

    On the streets of Jerusalem, Israel's biggest city, the mood was palpable as restrictions were eased.

    "I think there's a feeling of the beginning of the end," Ittay Flischer told the ABC outside a Jerusalem supermarket.

    "The life is coming back," said Daniel Alkokin, who was enjoying his first session back at the gym.

    Israel's infection rate dropping

    After governments began approving COVID-19 vaccines in late 2020, people became hopeful the end of the pandemic was near.

    But it remained unclear whether vaccines would offer total immunity from the disease, and if they would be able to prevent the spread of coronavirus between people.

    Early results from Israel's vaccination efforts are encouraging.

    A group of Israeli researchers has found one jab of the Pfizer vaccine may reduce viral loads in a person, making it harder to transmit coronavirus if someone becomes infected after the first dose.

    This followed a previous study by Israel's largest health provider, Clalit, on February 14 that reported a 94 per cent reduction in COVID-19 infections among 600,000 people who had received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

    In fact, Israel's infection rate has been falling steadily since its peak in January, but there is only limited evidence to suggest how much of that is owing to the vaccine and how much is owing to lockdown measures.

    "There is a reduction in transmission," Professor Davidovitch said.

    "Is it 50 per cent, 60 per cent, 70 per cent? It's not clear yet."

    But it is not just infections that have dropped.

    There has also been a sharp and fast decline in the number of people taken to hospital with COVID-19 in Israel.

    "We need to remember that vaccines cannot be a magic bullet solution," Professor Davidovitch said.

    "So what [Israel is] doing now is taking some measures that are very proportionate … mass testing, preventing mass gatherings and, of course, continuing wearing masks until we have herd immunity."

    How Israel became the world's fastest vaccinator

    Many governments around the world will be monitoring to see if any of Israel's lessons can be applied to their own countries, making this nation something of a global test laboratory.

    But Israel's situation is unique.

    A combination of factors gave Israel an edge, including a smaller population, and a deal struck with Pfizer to provide anonymised data that in turn landed a continuous vaccine supply.

    In Israel, which will go to the polls for the fourth election in two years on March 23, the vaccine is undoubtedly political.

    "[Prime Minister] Netanyahu sees the vaccines as his main playing card," said Gil Hoffman, who covers politics for Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post.

    "He has saved Israel from coronavirus and COVID-19 in his mind."

    The Israeli government appears to be going to extraordinary lengths to keep up the fast pace of its vaccine rollout compared to other countries.

    But the vaccination scheme is not without controversy.

    The green badge scheme means those who are unwilling to get the injection may not be allowed to return to leisure activities or international travel anytime soon.

    "Whoever does not get vaccinated will be left behind," Israel's health minister Yuli Edelstein has warned.

    What about Palestinians?

    While Israel presses on, Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and in Gaza — a small coastal territory controlled by Hamas that has been blockaded by Israel and Egypt since 2007 — will likely wait much longer for their jabs.

    Palestinian Health Minister Mai al-Kaila has also said that Israel is providing 100,000 more Palestinians who regularly cross into Israel to work with vaccinations.

    "Any [delay in] giving the vaccine for the Palestinian population in West Bank and Gaza will affect the herd immunity in Israel and even in Jordan," Dr Ali Abed Rabbo, the director-general of the Palestinian Health Ministry, told the ABC.

    Israel and its supporters have argued vaccinations in the West Bank and Gaza are the responsibility of the elected leaders there.

    "The criticism from the world that Israel isn't doing enough to help the Palestinians, I don't think that's taken too seriously by anyone in Israel," Mr Hoffman said.

    "We know that it's not our responsibility and hasn't been since the mid-1990s. There was never an expectation that would be something that Israel would have to take care of."

    But some groups, including the United Nations Human Rights Council, have argued Israel has a legal responsibility to inoculate Palestinians under occupation in the same way it does its own citizens.

    "There is an obligation on Israel as an occupying force," Dr Ali said.

    Another challenge for Palestinians receiving the vaccine is access.

    Both territories have so far relied on vaccines donated by Israel, Russia and the United Arab Emirates. Both need Israel's approval to import their doses.

    On top of 2,000 Russian-made Sputnik V vaccines that arrived in Gaza last week after Israel allowed their delivery, the Palestinian Authority is expecting many more for both Gaza and the West Bank, including from the World Health Organization's COVAX program.

    But it is unclear when they will all arrive, and with such a patchwork of suppliers, there is no clear date on when the Palestinian territories will complete their inoculation drive.

    © 2021 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved


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