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'We have returned ... [but] the world is still under attack'

As virus curbs canceled, top doctor sees curtains for COVID, but risks remain

Israel has triumphed over coronavirus and is likely seeing herd immunity, says Prof. Dror Mevorach, but his research also shows a link between the vaccine and a heart condition

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative image: A Shaare Zedek medical worker wearing safety gear as they work in a coronavirus ward on February 3, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative image: A Shaare Zedek medical worker wearing safety gear as they work in a coronavirus ward on February 3, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

With an implied declaration of victory over COVID, Israel has lifted the last of its virus restrictions on gatherings, and as of Tuesday, has scrapped the green pass.

The pass, only obtainable by people who are vaccinated or who have recovered from the coronavirus, was required to enter certain venues including restaurants and gyms. Now, entrance is open to all.

The decision to scrap restrictions comes as case numbers have fallen to just 350, with only a handful of new daily cases. This comes after an intense coronavirus crisis which saw 839,475 cases in a country of just over 9 million people, and 6,412 deaths.

Many restrictions had already been repealed. On Thursday, cinemas sprung back to life, after 14 months closed.

Just before Tuesday’s changes, Prof. Dror Mevorach, head of internal medicine at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center, talked to The Times of Israel on the current situation. The timing is right for the change, he said, commenting: “In short we have returned to normal life.”

Israelis attend a movie at the Cinema City theatre on the official reopenning night after 14 months of closure during the coronavirus pandemic, on May 27, 2021 in Jerusalem. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

He discussed a range of other topics, including the heart condition that is thought to be a vaccine side-effect. He is investigating its occurrence in Israel and is about to submit a detailed report to the Ministry of Health. “I have no doubt that vaccination can cause myocarditis,” he said.

Dror Mevorach of Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center (courtesy of of Hadassah Medical Center)

Is the timing right for Israel to end its coronavirus restrictions?

Yes, the timing is good. Cases have decreased, the virus isn’t spreading and we have no clinical disease in the country. There are very few patients. In my hospital there is just one. Even among the population that is not vaccinated the disease is not spreading. In short we have returned to normal life.

How would you describe the situation in your hospital today?

It’s much much quieter. In fact, there is only one coronavirus patient. In January there were 200 at one time. It was very demanding at that time and we didn’t know for sure that the vaccine would prove so effective, which meant we were managing the situation without knowing that it would ease.

In your assessment has Israel reached herd immunity?

There is no explanation for what we see other than Israel reaching some type of herd immunity as a result of vaccination. Some people thought it would take more vaccinated people, especially as children are not yet vaccinated, but seemingly it did not.

Palestinians from the Ministry of Health receive a shipment of the Russian Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine doses sent by the United Arab Emirates, after the Egyptian authorities allowed entry to Gaza through the Rafah crossing in the southern Gaza Strip, on February 21, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

It is possible for Israel to have herd immunity even if Palestinians are mostly still not vaccinated?

It’s true that it’s a problem, and that Palestinians coming to Israel and meeting with Israelis could be a source of disease spreading in Israel. But for now, as vaccinations have been provided to Palestinian workers as they come to Israel, this is less of a risk. Nevertheless, I think Israel should help inoculate the Palestinians, by supplying vaccines — there are enough spare — and by providing education on vaccination.

What is the concern of infection, whether from Palestinians or others?

We need to remember that while there aren’t really cases in Israel, the world is still under attack from the coronavirus. I came back from South America two weeks ago, where there are lots of cases. With some colleagues from Hadassah I gave help to the Argentinian government to try to overcome the spread. Even in Europe, coronavirus is not done.

The concern is that as coronavirus spreads, there is always the risk of mutations — and there could be a mutation that defies the vaccine. As long as the world is still fighting the disease, there is still a risk that Israel could have a resurgence.

Magen David Adom medical worker tests a man for the coronavirus in Jerusalem on March 18, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Do I sense pessimism?

No. Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, disappeared [two years after the start of the 2002 outbreak] and nobody really knows why. With COVID-19 there is this possibility and there is the possibility of herd immunity internationally. I’m optimistic, and also happen to think we will remain protected by vaccines for longer than predicted. Actually, I’m not sure we will be needing a booster anytime soon.

We expect to see the start of vaccinations for 12 to 15-year-olds within a few days. What do you expect the response to be?

I think half the parents will be willing to vacate their children, because they want to protect them, and many also want to travel outside of Israel. But I don’t think the vaccine will spread as it did among the adults. This is partly because there are fewer coronavirus cases, and also because of concerns about myocarditis.

Illustrative: An Israeli student receives a COVID-19 vaccine injection at a Leumit vaccination center in Tel Aviv, on January 23, 2021, just after the country rolled out inoculation to everyone aged 16-plus. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Myocarditis is the heart condition being investigated as possibly connected to the vaccine in America by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine safety group. And in Israel, you are one of the lead authors of a report about its occurrence. What is happening with your research?

I have no doubt that vaccination can cause myocarditis. There were more than 100 cases in Israel, and there was one death reported. I am about to send my report on what was seen in Israel to the Health Ministry, and I expect the ministry to make decisions regarding adolescent vaccines this week.

What do you expect the decision to be?

I think they will decide to vaccinate teens, but not like with adults when there was a very clear recommendation in favor of vaccination. Rather, they will say you should vaccinate your children but you should know there is possibility of this side effect, leaving it to parents to decide. I predict that 50% of parents won’t vaccinate.

Many Israelis are itching to travel internationally for pleasure, especially over the summer. Is this sensible or are there still risks?

I wouldn’t rush to travel, especially with children who are not vaccinated. The fact that in Israel we are safe at the moment doesn’t mean this will stay safe forever. Children could catch coronavirus there, as could adults from the small minority whose vaccines do not protects them. We should wait for the rest of the world to get rid of disease, and we have to patient for this.

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