Many countries around the world are in awe of Israel’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign. In less than two weeks, 1 million Israelis have been vaccinated with Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine, and we are now inoculating 150,000 people a day. As of Jan. 1, Israel is the world leader in the number of vaccines administered per capita, with countries like Britain, the United States and Germany trailing quite far behind. Many European countries have barely even kicked off their vaccination campaigns.
Beyond the Israeli government’s extraordinary achievement in securing the vaccines, we have risen to the task thanks to the country’s strong health-care system, logistical prowess, ability to respond quickly in emergencies, and most importantly, the enlistment and volunteering spirit of medical staff: nurses who finished their shift and volunteered for another, administrative staff who set up over 200 vaccination centers in record time, pharmacists and countless others. It is particularly moving to see Holocaust survivors come to Sheba Medical Center for their vaccinations, allowing us to express our gratitude to them for establishing the state.
In the midst of the campaign, however, several medical workers who had received the first of two required doses of vaccine reported muscle pain and chills, believing these were merely side effects of the inoculation. These symptoms were in fact an indication they had developed COVID-19.
How much protection does the first dose of Pfizer’s vaccine provide? The vaccine is at its most effective around one week after the second dose or 28 days after the first dose is administered. The first dose triggers a cellular response—antibodies and immune cells that are immune to the virus. The second dose triggers the memory cells and strengthens the body’s immune system to something like 95 percent efficacy against the disease.
The vaccine itself cannot cause COVID-19 because it does not contain fragments of the virus.
According to Pfizer’s clinical trials, around 5 percent of those who received the vaccine subsequently became infected with SARS-CoV2, though none became seriously ill. While social media networks are flooded with baseless information on the safety of the vaccine, the reality is clear: With one million doses administered, a relatively small number of allergic reactions requiring medical treatment have been observed. We continue to follow any symptoms reported, the majority of which are very mild and include pain, fever, redness at the injection site, as well as headaches and lethargy.
Yet we must not assume the pandemic is behind us. The number of cases is on the rise, and hospitals, including Sheba Medical Center, have reopened their coronavirus wards.
Now more than ever we must avoid complacency. We still don’t know, for instance, whether those who received the vaccine can infect others. There are vaccines, such as the polio vaccine, that trigger an immune response but do not prevent the virus from multiplying in mucus and infecting others.
With the war on the coronavirus at its height, now is the time for solidarity and both societal and individual responsibility, and for us to continue to wear masks and practice good hygiene and social distancing. I believe that at the start of a new year, there is room for optimism. I hope that we will soon see a return to the normal lives we all miss so much.
Professor Arnon Afek serves as deputy director of Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer and is a member of the team that advises Israel’s national coronavirus project coordinator.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.