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Experts reject Netanyahu’s claim Israel is almost ‘done with COVID’

End-of-crisis prediction a mere ‘campaign statement,’ immunologist says, after PM declared Israel will be out of the woods if 570,000 more citizens age 50-plus get vaccinated

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives a certificate after having his second COVID vaccine shot, on January 09, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives a certificate after having his second COVID vaccine shot, on January 09, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Doctors and health experts have been pouring cold water on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim that Israel may soon be “done with COVID, period” due to the success of the vaccination operation.

“This is a political, not a professional, statement,” Prof. Hagai Levine, epidemiologist and former head of Israel’s doctors union, told The Times of Israel.

Levine is a known critic of the government, and recently made a brief foray into politics, but numerous others without political connections share his view. According to immunologist Prof. Tomer Hertz of Ben Gurion University, Netanyahu’s claim “is a campaign statement similar to many others he has made.”

The prime minister is lauding the success of Israel’s vaccination campaign, which has now given at least one shot to more than 4 million people, some two-thirds of eligible citizens. Netanyahu is predicting this success will soon enable the country to kick COVID.

A medic prepares a vaccine at Meuhedet CIVID-19 vaccination center in Kfar Chabad, central Israel, on February 16, 2021. (Flash90)

He said on Monday in a rare Channel 12 interview: “If those 570,000 people over 50 get vaccinated, it’ll not only be the last lockdown, but we’ll be done with COVID, period.”

Levine dismissed the statement as “not factual and overstated.” He asked rhetorically: “What about people under 50? What if there are new variants in the future against which the vaccine don’t provide protection?”

Hertz echoed the concern about young unvaccinated people and variants and called Netanyahu’s claim “completely untrue.”

Prof. Tomer Hertz (courtesy of Tomer Hertz)

He said: “We will be in better shape for sure, but we will still have many unvaccinated younger adults and children, and all of them may be infected.” Hertz added: “The situation is far worse than what he is trying to paint.”

The Hebrew University epidemiologist Prof. Ronit Calderon-Margalit called Netanyahu’s prediction “inaccurate,” and commented: “The virus will keep circulating in younger adults and children, some of whom will get severely ill, though numbers will be smaller.”

She is part of an interdisciplinary Hebrew University team that models coronavirus figures. The team’s statistician, Prof. Nadav Katz, said: “We agree that a rapid and extensive vaccination of the more susceptible population, especially 50-plus, is important, even critical. However, it will not solve the problem completely and we will need to establish safety measures for the younger population, especially in light of the new variants.”

Prof. Dan Yamin, head of Tel Aviv University’s Laboratory for Epidemic Modeling and Analysis, took a different approach, asserting that Netanyahu raised a question that only he can answer.

Prof. Nadav Katz, who heads quantum research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, speaking at The Future of Quantum Technology Conference in Jerusalem on Dec. 11, 2018 (Noam Moreno)

“The absurd thing is that only he can decide if this is correct or not,” said Yamin.

“The government has the power to say that with the current situation the pandemic became less deadly than flu, and in this situation it is okay that people are infected with COVID, especially young people, and this is a policymaking question,” he said. “If the government takes this approach Netanyahu is correct, but if it doesn’t he will be incorrect — and Netanyahu himself will decide.”

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