Israel’s first batch of Pfizer vaccines was flown in on Wednesday as the country began to gear up for a mass vaccination effort to bring the coronavirus pandemic under control.
The DHL plane landed from Brussels carrying a cargo of between 3,000 and 4,000 doses of the vaccine in an initial delivery, with hundreds of thousands more set to arrive on Thursday.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a speech at Ben Gurion Airport, said that he would be the first person in Israel to receive the coronavirus vaccine as part of a campaign to encourage inoculation.
“What’s important to me is that people of Israel get vaccinated. I believe in this vaccine. I want the people of Israel to get vaccinated and so I will be first,” Netanyahu said.
“I have been the prime minister of Israel for quite a few years, and this is one of the most exciting moments,” he said. “I worked hard for long months with the Health Ministry and other organizations to find a solution to the pandemic and now you see the forklift unloading the first vaccines of millions that will come for the people of Israel.”
According to Channel 12, the first shipment is something of a pilot program, to practice the transit and storage of the vaccines, which must be stored at -70°C (-94°F) and used within five days of their removal from cold storage.
On Tuesday evening Netanyahu spoke with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla and thanked him for the assistance in securing the vaccine as well as reaching an agreement on further supplies, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement without providing any further details on quantities.
Netanyahu announced last month that Israel had signed a deal with Pfizer to purchase eight million doses of the vaccine, enough to inoculate four million Israelis. Last week, it was reported that Israel was set to receive up to four million doses by the end of this month.
The US Food and Drug Administration will review Pfizer’s trial data later this week. If it approves the vaccine for use, Israeli officials are expected to give it their okay.
One Israeli hospital, Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center, has asked for special permission to vaccinate its staff on the basis of Britain’s earlier authorization, if shots became available before FDA approval. However, top Health Ministry officials told Channel 12 this was unlikely to happen.
The Health Ministry has reportedly told Israel’s health maintenance organizations that December 20 is the target date to begin vaccinating Israelis against COVID-19.
A national vaccine storage and distribution center has been set up in the southern Negev desert region, where the millions of doses of vaccines that Israel has ordered are to be warehoused and then sent around the country.
The shipment came a day after the United Kingdom became the first country in the Western world to begin a mass vaccination program using the Pfizer vaccine.
The first vaccine shipments come as Israel is dealing with ballooning infections, and are unlikely to affect overall policy on the pandemic in the short term.
On Wednesday morning, a day after the government scrapped its plan to impose a nightly curfew for three weeks due to legal difficulties, Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch said that in his estimation, Israel would still need to tighten restrictions next week as infections climb.
“There will be no choice for the State of Israel other than entering into a situation of tight restraint,” Kisch told the Kan public broadcaster, explaining that would allow only the education system and workplaces that don’t receive members of the public to remain open, with an emphasis on shutting down malls.
The coronavirus cabinet in a late-night telephone meeting on Tuesday decided that all malls will be allowed to reopen, along with all outdoor markets and museums. They will all be required to have attendants enforce virus restrictions, with the new measures to stay in effect at least until December 23.
The statement did not explain why the government had decided to reverse course on tightening restrictions after pushing off the plan for nighttime curfews.
Also on Tuesday night, ministers decided to enforce localized lockdowns on the towns of Zalafa and Musmus, and on the Daliyat al-Carmel regional council, all near the northern city of Haifa, due to high infection rates. The closure will begin at 7 p.m. Wednesday and continue until December 14.
According to Channel 12, the Health Ministry will now recommend pinpoint closures based on local rates of infection, while specifically cracking down on Jewish areas with more serious outbreaks over Hanukkah and highly infected Christian-majority areas over Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
The Health Ministry is also seeking to establish that once Israel sees 2,000 cases a day — a benchmark it will likely reach next week — all stores, open-air markets and malls will close.
The ministry said on Wednesday morning that there were 1,719 new cases of the coronavirus diagnosed the day before, as the total number of infections in Israel since the outset of the pandemic climbed to 348,968.
There were 14,905 active cases in the country, with 310 patients in serious condition including 113 on ventilators. There were 96 people in moderate condition, with the remainder showing mild or no symptoms.
There have been 2,932 reported deaths in Israel from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.
The data was released a day after the country recorded its highest number of daily coronavirus cases in almost two months on Monday, as runaway infections upended the country’s gains during its second national lockdown and threatened to bring a third crashing down.
The positivity rate for test results coming back Tuesday was 2.5 percent of 68,464 tests conducted, a rise over last week, when that figure was closer to 2% on average.