We hear the term “coronavirus mutation” more and more often lately, and it makes one wonder how such mutations might affect the rate of infection and the effectiveness of the vaccines.

Viruses change their genetic material as a way to “deal” with the body’s immune response, whether natural or due to vaccination. These changes are referred to as “mutations.”

Some mutations kill a virus, while others enhance its ability to cause disease and evade the immune response. More than 2,000 mutations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus have been identified so far.

The so-called British strain of virus contains 17 genetic changes which give the mutation a 70 percent higher infection capability. This is the reason behind England’s spike in the infection rate and most likely also the reason why cases have skyrocketed in Israel.

Nonetheless, the British strain does not cause more severe disease, and both Pfizer and Moderna have found that their vaccines are effective against it.

As for the South African strain, the assumption is that these vaccines provide at least partial protection against it, but more research is needed on the subject.

The great advantage of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is their ability to speedily adapt to any mutation or genetic change and create an immunization that leads to an optimal immune response.

Israel’s vaccination campaign continues to break world records. Within the first three weeks of the operation, more than 20 percent of the population received the first of two required doses of Pfizer’s BioNTech vaccine. The rate of vaccination among Israelis over the age of 60 is a whopping 73 percent.

Within four weeks after the second dose of the vaccine, the immunity rate is as high as 95 percent, and the 5 percent that do get infected will experience only mild symptoms. Preliminary data from the Sheba Medical Center at Tel HaShomer and HMOs shows that just two weeks after receiving the first dose, the number of infected decreased by 60 percent. Within three one can surely expect to see a significant decrease in the number of patients in critical condition.

In the meantime, we must do our very best to follow the lockdown rules, in hopes that this will be Israel’s last lockdown. Now, even more than ever, we must do everything in our power to prevent the increase in the number of patients in critical condition and on ventilators. Failure to do so will impair hospitals’ ability to provide care to coronavirus and other patients.

Still, there’s reason for optimism: The Israeli government has increased its efforts and signed an agreement with Pfizer to receive additional vaccines which will make it possible to vaccinate the entire population.

Israel’s ability to collect information and monitor the vaccinations, while protecting the identity of recipients, convinced Pfizer to provide it with additional vaccines. As a result, it is currently on track to be the first country in the world to vaccinate its entire population.

Furthermore, Israel will be able to pay it forward by sharing its experience and knowledge of the vaccination campaign with the world.

Thanks to the public health system, the health funds and the hospitals, the technological and logistical capabilities, and most importantly, the mobilization and dedication of the medical staff, vaccinating the entire population is possible.

I believe Israel will lead the world back to normal. We are so close to the finish line.

May we celebrate Passover with our families and friends this year, and may we remember that we can overcome any virus if we stand together.

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.


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