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Expert: With 500,000 vaccines, Israel could cut virus death rate by up to 65%

First half a million shots would be sufficient to vaccinate all Israelis over 75, could reduce serious cases by up to 40%, estimates Eran Segal

Aner Ottolenghi receives the Israeli-developed Coronavirus vaccination at the Hadassah Ein Karem hospital in Jerusalem on November 1, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Aner Ottolenghi receives the Israeli-developed Coronavirus vaccination at the Hadassah Ein Karem hospital in Jerusalem on November 1, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel could drive down its coronavirus death rate by up to 65 percent with just half a million vaccines, an expert said Saturday.

Prof. Eran Segal, a computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, estimated in an interview with Channel 12 that if a future vaccine proves to be 90% effective, it could reduce COVID-19 deaths in Israel by 65% with just half a million doses. If the vaccine is 70% effective in blocking the virus, the death rate would be cut by half, he said.

The batch of the first half a million vaccines would also reduce the number of serious cases by 40% if the shot is 90% effective, and 31% if it is 70% effective, according to Segal’s calculations.

The first 500,000 vaccines are expected to be sufficient to innoculate Israelis over 75 years old. With 800,000 shots, all Israelis over 70 can be vaccinated, and with 1.2 million, it would cover the elderly population over 65 who are most at risk for complications from the virus, according to Segal.

Eran Segal (Courtesy)

According to the Health Ministry, there are currently 295 serious coronavirus patients. Over 2,700 Israelis have died of the virus since the start of the pandemic.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday announced that Israel signed a deal with Pfizer to purchase millions of coronavirus vaccine shots, days after the US pharmaceutical firm said data suggested the vaccine was 90 percent effective at preventing COVID-19.

As part of the agreement with Pfizer, Netanyahu said Israel would receive 8 million doses of the vaccine, enough to inoculate 4 million Israelis. Netanyahu expressed hope that Pfizer would begin supplying the vaccine in January, pending authorization from health officials in the United States and Israel.

“This is a great day for Israel and a great day for our victory over the coronavirus,” Netanyahu said in a televised statement at IDF military headquarters in Tel Aviv.

However, the Ynet news site reported that the deal does not obligate Pfizer to supply the vaccines but only states that it intends to do so “according to circumstances.” If it fails to supply them, the company will return Israel’s advance.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a televised statement on the signing of a deal to purchase Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine, at IDF military headquarters in Tel Aviv, November 13, 2020. At left is Health Minister Yuli Edelstein. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Speaking after Netanyahu, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said he hoped “significant quantities” of the vaccine would begin arriving in early 2021.

“This is very important but as I’ve said, we must not become complacent. There is no vaccine for complacency,” Edelstein said, calling on Israelis to wear masks and observe social distancing rules.

Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech confirmed the deal with Israel in a joint statement late Thursday.

Pfizer announced Monday that initial data indicated the vaccine it is developing with BioNTech is 90% effective at preventing COVID-19, sparking optimism inoculations against the novel coronavirus could soon be available.

However, its storage and transport require exceedingly cold temperatures, creating intense logistical complications.

A Russian medical worker administers a shot of Russia’s experimental Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in Moscow, Russia, September 15, 2020. (Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/AP)

Israel has deals with two other pharmaceutical firms for vaccines, and is developing its own version as well, but had reportedly not been intensively engaged in talks with Pfizer before Monday’s announcement, putting it at a disadvantage.

Besides its agreements with Moderna and Arcturus, Israel has also inked a deal with Italian biotech firm ReiThera to supply a vaccine if and when developed, and is in talks with Russia to purchase a vaccine it is developing. Its own Biological Research Institute is also working on a vaccine candidate.

The vaccine hopes came as the number of virus cases in the country began to rise.

Police reinforce regulations outside a shop on the first day of the reopening of street shops in Jerusalem on November 08, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The high-level coronavirus cabinet is expected to discuss further rolling back lockdown measures when it convenes on Sunday, despite signals that the decline in new infections was slowing. Among the measures set to be discussed are reopening grades 5-6 and 11-12, allowing malls to reopen and imposing a nighttime curfew, according to the Ynet news site.

The Health Ministry is skeptical of a curfew, however, arguing it is ineffective in bringing down infections if it doesn’t take force between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m., the report said. The ministry also reportedly remains opposed to reopening malls, museums and gyms.

Israel sharply brought down its daily coronavirus infection numbers from some 8,000 in mid-September to several hundred by late October with a nationwide lockdown, its second since the start of the pandemic. It has remained stubbornly above 500 cases a day on most days though, with 30,000 daily tests or more.

The lockdown paralyzed much of public life and the economy and shuttered the entire education system. The government began removing some restrictions a few weeks ago, opening preschools and kindergartens, then grades 1-4, as well as permitting some street-front businesses to begin operations. The rest of the education system has continued with remote learning.

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