Prominent scientists say the transformation of Israel from a COVID-19 hotspot to a vaccination success story underlines that any developed country can subdue the virus.
They estimate that a relatively small number of vaccinations are needed to take a country out of crisis mode. The moment that half of the population aged 60-plus is inoculated, authorities can expect a dramatic drop in cases and hospitals are safe from being overwhelmed, they conclude.
The claims come from authors of a detailed report, published as a peer-reviewed article in the journal Cell Reports Medicine, on just how dire a COVID situation Israel faced in the early weeks of the vaccination campaign, especially as the new, highly infectious British variant was on the rampage.
“Israel was facing a range of factors that made the situation here particularly difficult, and if it succeeded despite all of this, and we could achieve a rapid decline in cases, then any developed country can,” Prof. Dan Yamin of Tel Aviv University told The Times of Israel.
He said that most other Western countries are in a better situation as they embark, or prepare to embark, on their vaccination programs, and therefore can be particularly confident upon seeing Israel’s infection, hospitalization, and death rates hit rock bottom.
His data suggests that vaccines quickly saved “hundreds of lives” in Israel, and his statistical analysis shows that the health service was swiftly protected from meltdown as a critical mass of 60-plus received vaccines.
“The message to the world, especially European countries, the US and developed countries in Asia, is that if you reach 50% coverage among adults over 60 you will see a dramatic decline in severe cases and can ensure you will avoid hospitals being overwhelmed,” he said.
Yamin thinks that vaccines can and should reach countries beyond the developed world, but limited his comments to Western countries as others don’t have infrastructure for distributing and administering vaccines that would make a comparison with Israel relevant.
The study, reported by The Times of Israel in February before it was peer-reviewed, is based on data from some 300,000 coronavirus tests conducted by health authorities. Data from these tests gave a clear picture of how, just as the vaccination drive was gathering pace, the extra-infectious British variant spread rapidly across Israel.
The research found that it has proved 45 percent more transmissible than the regular coronavirus in Israel, and that in just two months after first arriving in the country, it came to account for 95% of coronavirus cases — which is believed to be higher than in most countries apart from the UK.
Yamin, head of Tel Aviv University’s Laboratory for Epidemic Modeling and Analysis, noted that in addition to contending with the hazards of this variant, Israel was among the nations with the highest levels of new infections as vaccination got underway.
“As well as facing an extra-transmissive variant, Israel is a highly transmissive environment,” he said. “This is the case because there is densely concentrated housing, big young populations where asymptomatic infections are common and ‘silent epidemics’ are possible, and because of large household sizes.
“When you remember that most infection takes place in households, the challenges that Israel faced are clearer.”
He said that vaccines in Israel quickly overcame the multiple challenges that the country was facing, and prevented the British variant from getting a foothold among the vulnerable 60-plus age group, which was already getting vaccinated as it arrived.
Yamin’s research, co-authored with Prof. Ariel Munitz and Prof. Moti Gerlitz of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Clinical Microbiology and Immunology at the Sackler Faculty of Medicine, indicates that as the British variant spread fast among under-60s in January, it actually started to decline among the elderly by the middle of the month.
Had it made inroads among the 60-plus, this could have accelerated the pandemic in the age group most likely to respond badly to the virus.
The new research gives encouragement to Western countries that as they vaccinate, “their curve of infection will break,” said Yamin.