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Opinion

Optimism is fine, but the virus is still with us

Israel’s vaccination campaign has been an unprecedented success, but questions remain open and new variants could still complicate things.

Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market on March 3, 2021. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market on March 3, 2021. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Arnon Afek

Israel is beginning to turn the tide in the fight against the COVID pandemic. This success is a direct result of the country’s impressive vaccination campaign, which has led to a drop in disease morbidity and an ongoing reopening of the economy and return to ordinary life.

The eyes of the world are on Israel, which is leading the globe in terms of the percentage of citizens vaccinated. More than 5 million people have received at least one dose, and 4 million-plus have received both doses—meaning that 57 percent of the total population has been vaccinated. There is no doubt that the vaccine is effective, and the data proves it: None of the patients hospitalized and on ECMO machines were vaccinated at all, and only one of the 41 pregnant women hospitalized for COVID was vaccinated. Only 8 percent of all hospitalized COVID patients received two doses of the vaccine.

Epidemiological studies the Israeli healthcare system has conducted also demonstrate the vaccine’s efficacy. A study by Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer that was published in the prestigious journal Lancet found that the vaccine is 94 percent effective starting four weeks from the first dose. Another study, by Clalit Health Services and published in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that vaccinated people were 92 percent less likely to contract the virus and 94 percent less likely to develop symptoms if infected. Health Ministry data indicate that the vaccine is capable of reducing COVID-19 mortality by 99 percent.

The main message of all these numbers is that we need to finish vaccinating more than a million more Israelis, and hope that U.S. clinical studies will soon indicate that children ages 12 and up can be safely vaccinated.

As for what comes next, the first, most vital step is to fully reinstate the school system. We also need to start working on a system of rapid response to deal with the threat of new variants of the COVID-19 virus that could upset everything and force us backward, as has already happened in Italy, which is once again under lockdown because of the British variant.

Any such system needs to be able to provide solutions for enforcement and for testing people entering Israel through its airports or land crossings. There must be inspectors who check everyone coming into the country and enforce regulations on quarantine, meaning heavy fines for violators. Another system has to be put in place that will adapt vaccines to any new mutations that might appear. The announcement by Pfizer’s CEO that he has instructed the company to develop vaccines for the variants within 100 days is encouraging.

At this stage, issues that remain unanswered have to do with whether or not, and to what extent, vaccinated individuals can spread the virus, and the possible need to revaccinate periodically, as we do every year for the flu. The first question is still being studied, although it is possible to state cautiously that vaccinated people both contract the virus and spread it less than unvaccinated people. As for the second question, Israel has already proven itself unusually capable and will doubtless be able to run a repeat vaccination campaign if more variants appear or as the vaccine’s efficacy wears off.

Along with the hope and optimism that have seized Israelis, we need to remember that COVID-19 is still with us. We all need to lend our support to the ongoing vaccination campaign and follow regulations as the key to making our way out of the pandemic successfully.

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.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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