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Israel leads the world in COVID vaccinations

Tania Krämer
January 5, 2021

Israel has rolled out its first vaccinations. With cases rising, the third nationwide shutdown is expected to be tightened. Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza will receive vaccines at a later date.

An woman receives the BioNTech-Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in Beersheba
An woman receives the BioNTech-Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in BeershebaImage: Tsafrir Abayov/AP/picture alliance

Two weeks after starting its COVID-19 vaccination campaign, Israel leads the world in immunizations per capita. On Tuesday, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said 1.37 million Israelis had received their first doses of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine. Compared with other countries that started their immunization drives in December, Israel has become "a world champion in vaccinations," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote on Twitter.

Vying for reelection in snap polls in March, Netanyahu is promising Israelis that the country could be the first to "emerge" from the coronavirus pandemic — provided that they take their jabs. A so-called green passport, which would allow more freedoms to people who have been vaccinated, has been dangled to encourage Israelis to enlist for vaccination. "I think there is a readiness in society to start coming out of it and to feel some control over their lives again," said Diane Levin-Zamir, a professor of public health at the University of Haifa. "The metaphor of a vaccine is just helping people to see that we are taking giant steps out of the corona pandemic."

The government had secured several million doses of the two-stage BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine early on. The Moderna vaccine was approved on Tuesday, but the first batches are not expected until March, according to the Health Ministry.

Israel COVID-19 vaccination center
Israel has set up large COVID-19 vaccination centers such as this one in Tel AvivImage: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

The fast rollout of immunization is thanks in part to the relatively small size of Israel, the provision of vaccines and the country's digitized health care system. Every citizen has to register with one of the four nongovernmental health maintenance organizations (HMOs) that provide care. Now, clinics, hospitals and makeshift vaccination centers are working almost 24/7 to administer the shots. "Israel has this infrastructure that on the one hand is very community-oriented," said Levin-Zamir, who also works as director of the department of health education at the HMO Clalit. "It is very dispersed — there are many primary care clinics in every neighborhood or small towns — but we also have the centralized health care system."

For now, anyone over 60, health care workers, caregivers and people with underlying health conditions are given priority. Stories of younger people simply walking into clinics or being called up to receive surplus doses of vaccine which would otherwise be wasted, have also circulated on social media. An opened BioNTech-Pfizer vial has to be used within a short time.

Coronavirus still spreading

Israel continues to struggle with a soaring coronavirus infection rate. The death toll stands currently at 3,445 people. Health officials have suggested that the third nationwide shutdown, which was imposed in December, would be tightened this week. "Full vaccination is only a week after the second dose," Health Minister Yuli Edelstein wrote on Twitter. "In the meantime, morbidity is rising quickly. Therefore, there's no choice but a full and fast closure."

BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine in Israel
The first immunizations have used the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine, developed in GermanyImage: Jack Guez/Getty Images/AFP

As logistical, financial and political problems abound, it remains uncertain when vaccination will commence for the 5 million Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Both the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority-administered West Bank have seen rising infection rates in recent months. More than 1,600 people have died from COVID-19. The timing of this spike and media coverage of the vaccination campaign in Israel have Palestinians wondering when vaccination is planned for them. Some fear that immunizations will be delayed as rich countries inoculate populations first. Many have discussed Israel's responsibilities to immunize Palestinians in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem have mostly access to the vaccination program through their local Israeli health care providers.

In an open letter, several Israeli human rights organizations appealed to the government, as the occupying power, to supply or to help fund vaccines for Palestinians. Some officials have suggested that the government might turn over any surplus once Israel's population has been vaccinated. Sources have pointed out that this would be in the national interest as thousands of Palestinians commute across the border daily or work in Israeli settlements.This would increase the pressure on the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority to secure vaccines from different countries and pharmaceutical companies. The Russian-made Sputnik V and UK-produced AstraZeneca vaccines have been reported as possibilities. "We are trying our best to get vaccines and have made requests to several companies," said Dr. Yaser Bouzieh, the director-general of the Public Health Department at the Palestinian Health Ministry. There is no agreed timeline as of now, he added, but "we expect delivery by the end of February or in March."

In addition, the Palestinian Authority has signed up for a special partnership mechanism with the World Health Organization and the Gavi Vaccine Alliance. The WHO-administered COVAX program aims to help low-income countries to get an equitable share of vaccines. As such, it would help provide vaccines in stages for up to 20% of health care workers and people over 60 or who have preexisting conditions in the West Bank and Gaza. "We don't know exactly yet when vaccines will become available for distribution, as many potential vaccines are being studied and several large clinical trials are underway," said Gerald Rockenschaub, the head of office of the WHO office for the Palestinian territories. Ninety-two countries participating in the program are awaiting emergency use approval of the vaccines before distribution begins. "We estimate that it could be in early to mid-2021," Rockenschaub said.

In recent days, local media have reported that an expected temporary shortage of vaccine supplies would slow down the inoculation. "The Achilles' heel lies in the chain of supply of the vaccine in January," Amos Harel wrote recently in the newspaper Haaretz. To continue the successful campaign, Israel will need a steady supply of the pledged vaccines.  

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