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Israel walks back reported virus czar claim that Pfizer 1st dose less effective

After Nachman Ash quoted as saying first shot of vaccine provides less protection than company initially indicated, Health Ministry says his comments were taken out of context

Israel's coronavirus czar, Prof. Nachman Ash, visits at the coronavirus department at the Ziv hospital in Safed, in northern Israel. December 24, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Israel's coronavirus czar, Prof. Nachman Ash, visits at the coronavirus department at the Ziv hospital in Safed, in northern Israel. December 24, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The Health Ministry on Friday walked back apparent claims by Israel’s virus czar that the first dose of Pfizer’s vaccine provides less protection against COVID-19 than the US pharmaceutical firm had initially indicated it would, saying his words had been quoted out of context.

Earlier this week, Army Radio reported that Nachman Ash had, in a meeting with health officials, noted that many people have gotten infected between the first and second Pfizer shots and questioned the effectiveness of the vaccine after just one dose. The data on the protective effect against the virus of the first dose is “lower than Pfizer presented,” he was quoted saying.

Pfizer says its vaccine, produced with BioNTech, is around 52% effective after the first dose, and increases to about 95% a number of days after the second dose.

In a statement issued Friday, the Health Ministry said reports regarding the czar’s comments were “out of context and not accurate.”

“The vaccination campaign in Israel started a month ago… during a surge in morbidity and mortality in the country, which makes it hard to evaluate vaccination effectiveness without biases,” the ministry said. “Initial evaluation reveals some protective effects of the vaccine and those are carefully studied by the Health Ministry.”

“The commissioner said we have yet to see a decrease in the number of severely ill patients. As the second dose is given these days to at-risk populations we expect to see the full protective impact of the vaccine,” the statement said.

An education worker receives a COVID-19 vaccine injection, at a Clalit clinic in Jerusalem, January 12, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Health Ministry also announced Friday that it had broken a record in daily vaccinations on Thursday, with 244,000 Israelis getting inoculated.

Ministry figures showed 2,441,379 Israelis have received the first vaccine dose and 850,811 of them the second.

Israel is leading the world in vaccination on a per capita basis, according to the Oxford-based Our World in Data.

More than a month into Israel’s vaccination campaign, Health Ministry officials had hoped to see a dramatic drop in daily infections and serious cases, but there is no such trend at this time. The more contagious virus variants — particularly the British strain — are being blamed for the difficulty in bringing down illness rates and easing the heavy load on hospitals, despite the lockdown and mass vaccinations.

The ministry also reported a slight decline in daily coronavirus infections, as Israel’s worst outbreak since the pandemic began appeared to ease after weeks of strict lockdown rules.

According to the ministry, 7,099 new cases were confirmed Thursday, after peaking at over 10,100 earlier in the week. Along with another 1,228 cases since midnight, the total number of infections recorded in Israel reached 585,746.

The drop in daily cases came as testing levels also further decreased, though the positive test rate fell to 8.9 percent.

The death toll stood at 4,245, with 27 fatalities recorded Thursday.

The ministry said there were 82,029 active cases, with 1,845 patients hospitalized for COVID-19. Of those, 1,128 were in serious condition, with 310 on ventilators.

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