Fauci to ToI: Israeli vaccine effort ‘a model for rest of the world’

Top US infectious disease expert says Israel’s socialized health system eases distribution; urges PM not to let guard down if he chooses to declare victory once enough inoculated

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks with reporters at the White House, in Washington, January 21, 2021 (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks with reporters at the White House, in Washington, January 21, 2021 (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

The US government’s top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci on Thursday characterized the Israeli vaccine distribution effort as a “model for the rest of the world.”

“I use Israel as an example of what can happen when you effectively vaccinate a substantial proportion of the people,” said the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in a phone interview with The Times of Israel.

As of Thursday, nearly 4.2 million Israelis have received a first vaccine dose and 2.8 million have gotten both shots.

Around 3 million Israelis are not currently eligible to be vaccinated, including those younger than 16 and people who have recovered from COVID-19, among others.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, laughs while speaking in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House, Jan. 21, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Noting the difference between Israel and the US, which is slowly picking up its vaccine effort after sluggishly coming out of the gate late last year, Fauci said the Jewish state has the advantage of being a far smaller country.

“But you’re very well organized and your ability to get the vaccine into the arms of people… is very admirable,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein seen during a visit at COVID-19 vaccination center in Zarzir, northern Israel, February 9, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Asked whether the success could be credited to Israel’s socialized healthcare system and Health Management Organizations (HMOs) that have handled vaccine distribution, Fauci said, “Absolutely, because it’s uniform.”

“You don’t have to modify whether you’re in Tel Aviv, or Haifa or in the Negev. It’s all the same,” he explained during his first ever interview with an Israeli outlet.

Fauci lamented the situation in the US where vaccine distribution has varied by state. He acknowledged the importance of granting states independence to maneuver, “but when you’re dealing with a common enemy… it’s much better if you do things with a strategic plan and… [there are] common denominators of success.”

The top medical official noted that recent steps taken by the Biden administration to establish community vaccine centers and mobile units in addition to streamlining the distribution of vaccines to pharmacies have helped the US get back on track.

Lauding Israel’s vaccine drive earlier this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Channel 12 that if the remaining 570,000 unvaccinated Israelis over the age of 50 receive their shots “we’ll be done with COVID.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, listens as President Joe Biden speaks during a visit at the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on Feb. 11, 2021, in Bethesda, Md. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Asked to comment on the assertion, Fauci was more cautious. “You better be careful,” he said.

“I think it’s going to be a tremendous advantage to get those people vaccinated and then you’ll be in good shape. But unless the entire world essentially has access to and gets vaccinated, there’s always the threat that a variant is going to come in and evade the protection of the vaccine,” the US health official added, while noting the vaccines have been effective against the variants that have penetrated into Israel thus far.

The vaccines being distributed in Israel have been effective against the variants that have penetrated the country, he noted, but clarified that additional variants “might weaken the protection that you all have established.”

Pressed as to whether he felt Israel should help vaccinate neighboring Palestinians, who have been unable to inoculate at the same rates, Fauci responded carefully, “You’re asking me a political question, and I don’t want to go there. That only gets me into trouble.”

Returning to Netanyahu’s assurances, the top medical expert said, “I don’t have a problem with declaring victory, so long as you keep your army intact.”

He agreed that once enough Israelis are vaccinated, the government could ease restrictions on gathering. “If it looks like you’re well protected, you can — depending on the situation on the ground — modify and pull back on some of the restrictions.

An Israeli man receives a vaccine at a Meuhedet COVID-19 vaccination center in Kfar Chabad, on February 16, 2021. (Flash90)

Asked whether that loosening of constraints extends to Israel’s skies, Fauci said he wasn’t familiar enough with the situation in the Jewish state to make such a calculation.

As for other strategies for curbing the pandemic, Fauci said lockdowns are “the most effective and the quickest, but asserted that they must remain temporary.

“If you lock down long enough, you can really crush the economy and morale,” he said.

Israel is gradually coming out of its third national closure since the start of the pandemic, and is a world leader in the number of days under lockdown (139), according to the Oxford Coronavirus Government Response Tracker.

But on the vaccination effort in Israel, Fauci noted that there was much to cheer. “The success of what they implemented is a model for the rest of the world.”

Earlier in the week it was announced that Fauci had won Israel’s prestigious Dan David Prize for 2021 for a lifetime of leadership on HIV research and AIDS relief, as well as his advocacy for the vaccines against COVID-19.

“This is a very prestigious international prize, one of the most important medical prizes in the world,” he said Thursday. “I’m deeply honored and really quite humbled by it.”

Asked what he plans to do with the $1 million prize money, Fauci said he’s allowed to give $100,000 to a fellowship of his choosing.

Beyond that, he hasn’t had time to give it much thought. “I’ve been a little busy,” he cracked.

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