Israel is set to begin administering second doses of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine to the public Sunday, precisely three weeks after it began its national inoculation drive, as the third wave of the pandemic continued to take a heavy toll on the country with a record 964 serious cases.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli to get the second dose of the vaccine Saturday, just as he inaugurated the first dose, and declared that all Israelis could be fully immunized within two months. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein received the second shot after him.
A new deal with Pfizer will see hundreds of thousands of new doses land in Israel Sunday, with planned weekly shipments of similar size expected to deliver another million doses to the country by the end of the month, and 10 million doses expected by March.
Israel has already given first doses to some 1.7 million people out of a population of 9.29 million, by far the highest vaccination rate in the world. The Health Ministry has prioritized at-risk groups and people over 60, with more than 70 percent of Israelis in that age group having now received the first shot.
According to the Oxford University-run Our World in Data, Israel had vaccinated 19.55 percent of its population as of January 7, leaps and bounds ahead of other countries.
Next in line were Bahrain (9.52%) and the United Arab Emirates (4.6%). The US, in fourth place, has only vaccinated some 2.02% of its population — about 10 times less than the Israeli share.
The next shipment to Israel had originally been set to arrive only in February, and authorities had in recent days wound down first-dose vaccinations due to an expected shortage, to allow all those awaiting second shots to get them on time, 21 days after the first.
But Netanyahu announced Thursday that Pfizer had agreed to send millions of additional doses to Israel, which will serve as a “model country” for the pharmaceutical giant, offering statistical data on the vaccine’s effectiveness. He said the huge influx of vaccine doses would allow Israel to be the first country in the world to get out of the coronavirus crisis.
Health officials now expect to restart first-dose shots on Wednesday, Channel 12 reported. They hope to start vaccinating teaching staff within days, and to move on to all Israelis over 50 very soon. The report said officials believe that if vaccine shipments arrive as planned, vaccination will be opened for the entire population within two or three weeks.
Channel 12 reported that the new shipments had led Israel to be contacted in recent days by at least four countries, among them Cyprus and Denmark, who asked for some of Israel’s stocks. They were told that Jerusalem would consider the matter, but that it would not provide vaccines to others before its own population was fully taken care of.
Sharon Alroy-Preis, the Health Ministry’s acting head of public health, said Friday that the pharmaceutical giant will receive only information that is provided to the public, including “How many cases, how many serious cases, how many fatalities, how many vaccinated.”
According to Channel 12, the World Health Organization will also be given access to Israeli data to draw its own conclusions on the vaccine.
A the same time, Israel is facing a fresh wave of infections that health officials have said is shaping up to be its worst yet. The country on Friday entered a strict lockdown, closing all schools and non-essential businesses and instructing the public not to venture out of home unless for essential needs.
According to the Health Ministry, 7,808 new coronavirus cases were recorded Friday, which along with another 2,998 since midnight Saturday brought the total number of infections confirmed in Israel since the pandemic began to 484,083.
The death toll stood at 3,633, with 46 fatalities recorded Friday.
The number of Israelis hospitalized in serious condition for COVID-19 rose to 964, a record since the start of the pandemic. There were 68,766 active cases, with 236 of those in serious condition on ventilators. Another 270 were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.
The ministry said 119,309 tests were conducted Friday, with 6.5 percent coming back positive.
Earlier Saturday, the Health Ministry said that four cases of the highly contagious South African coronavirus strain had been identified in Israel, the first time the mutated variant had been discovered in the country. A British strain that is also particularly contagious is already believed to be prevalent in the Israeli population.
Channel 12 cited a senior health official as downplaying the significance of the discovery of the South African variant, saying there was no hard evidence it was more infectious than the British one, and that it was unlikely to have a major effect on Israel’s already-high infection rate.
The official told the network it was believed that some 10-20 percent of all new infections in the country are now being caused by the UK strain.
The Health Ministry has emphasized that although the variant was more contagious, there is no evidence that it causes more severe illness.
The strains share a common mutation called N501Y, a slight alteration on one spot of the spike protein that coats the virus. That change is believed to be the reason they can spread so easily. The variant first discovered in South Africa has an additional mutation named E484K.
Prof. Gabi Barbash, former director-general of the Health Ministry, told Channel 12 network that medical professionals continue to believe the current vaccines provide protection from the new mutations, though data is not yet comprehensive enough.
“The protection afforded by the vaccine is much stronger than a few mutations in the virus’s spike protein” which are likely to continue to occur around the world, he said.
Officials told Channel 12 that with the previous two weeks of a looser lockdown showing no apparent effect on morbidity, Israel was likely to remain under the tighter restrictions for at least two weeks, perhaps three.
Police on Saturday said they’d handed out some 10,000 fines for lockdown breaches, with the vast majority targeting people who ventured more than the allowed one kilometer from home without sufficient justification, while others were punished for failing to wear masks in public, opening businesses illegally or breaking requirements for quarantine.
Police have promised that enforcement of the new restrictions will be much more comprehensive than before, when much of the public was seen to be largely ignoring the lockdown.
Friday, the first day of the tightened closure, saw streets largely empty. But officials believe the coming week will be the real test of a weary public’s adherence to the health guidelines.
A key issue will be observance in the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities, known to be the hardest-hit groups in Israel per capita, due to a failure to keep the rules by significant portions of those populations.
One of the most influential spiritual leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community urged his followers Thursday to heed the government lockdown regulations and the instructions from the medical establishment. Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky said Haredi schools would close for “several days” during the lockdown. Kanievsky has in the past ordered ultra-Orthodox schools to remain open as lockdown measures were in force.
Still, some schools in more extreme sects are likely to defy both the government and him and open anyway. In the past, the government has failed to act strongly against such violations, with critics saying Netanyahu is afraid to anger his Haredi political partners.
Agencies contributed to this report.