Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Thursday that Israel would be the first country in the world to inoculate all of its citizens over the age of 16 and that it will do so by the end of March.
Lauding a “tremendous breakthrough” in Israel’s negotiations with Pfizer, Netanyahu said the pharmaceutical giant had agreed to send millions of additional doses to the Jewish state, with a plane carrying the first new shipment set to land on Sunday.
“The agreement that I have made with Pfizer will enable us to vaccinate all citizens of Israel over the age of 16 by the end of March and perhaps even earlier,” he said, “meaning that we will vaccinate the entire relevant population and everyone who wants to will be able to be vaccinated.”
Israel will serve as a “model country” for Pfizer, offering statistical data on the vaccine’s effectiveness, the prime minister said. Netanyahu said this was agreed to in a series of 17 phone calls he had with Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla. Sharing its data on the vaccine’s effectiveness, Israel would assist in the formulation of a “global strategy” to beat the pandemic.
This “model country” status was possible, he said, because of the world-leading success of Israel’s vaccination drive to date, enabled by the country’s superb healthcare service.
“We can do this because our health system is among the most advanced in the world, truly a light unto the nations.”
Netanyahu was speaking hours before Israel enters a more strict two-week full lockdown from midnight Thursday, imposed because new contagion cases have been rising to some 8,000 per day. Israel’s world-leading vaccination drive has begun to slow this week, because of a shortage of doses.
“On the next Passover Eve, if there are no surprises,” Israelis will be able to celebrate with their extended families, Netanyahu said. “When we ask why is this night different, the answer will be: Everything has changed.”
Passover eve this year is on March 27.
Israel holds its fourth elections in two years on March 23.
The prime minister said the expedited vaccine drive was being dubbed “Back to Life.”
The data-sharing with Pfizer was reportedly a tradeoff for the company’s willingness to sell so many vaccines to Israel ahead of other countries.
According to the Ynet news site, Pfizer had been imploring Israel to share data on its vaccination efforts compiled by the country’s HMOs and Health Ministry. Israel until Thursday had refused.
Netanyahu urged all Israelis to observe the lockdown rules. “Victory [over COVID-19] is within our grasp,” he said.
In a statement released shortly after Netanyahu’s press conference, the Health Ministry announced that it had signed an agreement with Pfizer to advance vaccine shipments that were not slated to arrive for another month.
“Israel is the world leader in immunization rate. The agreement with Pfizer will help us continue to effectively vaccinate anyone who wants to [and] allow the country to return to routine as soon as possible,” the statement said.
Earlier Thursday, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein announced that the government will work to prioritize teachers in its coronavirus vaccination efforts, in a stark about-face from previous policy that saw him act against municipalities who inoculated hundreds of school staff.
A statement from Edelstein’s office said the decision followed consultations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, though no specification was given as to how they plan on carrying out the policy.
Moreover, a health official told Ynet that he was skeptical as to whether the announcement meant anything at this point because the country was running out of its first batch of vaccines.
Meanwhile, the Israel Teachers Union announced that its labor dispute with the government would remain in effect until all teachers were vaccinated.
A statement from the union declared that teachers would strike next Tuesday — when all classes will be held online due to the latest lockdown — if special education teachers are not vaccinated in the coming days. The union also demanded that the lockdown, which goes into effect on Friday, be used to inoculate all remaining teachers.
With the government dragging its feet, local municipalities across the country began working to vaccinate teachers, using the leftover doses they had received from the government to vaccinate the elderly and other at-risk populations.
The Tel Aviv municipality publicized its effort that was operated jointly with the city’s Ichilov Hospital. Three thousand teachers were vaccinated as a result.
But the move angered Edelstein, who claimed that Tel Aviv and Ichilov authorities were taking advantage of the situation. The health minister on Monday ordered that vaccine supplies be halted to the hospital.
Also on Thursday, the first batch of vaccines from US biotech company Moderna arrived in Israel, in a boost to the country’s national vaccination drive.
The shipment included some 100,000 doses, according to Hebrew media reports. Additional doses are expected to arrive next week. The Moderna vaccine requires two injections, with 100,000 doses enough to immunize 50,000 people.
Israel’s vaccination campaign is in full swing, even as the country grapples with a surge in cases and is set to enter a more stringent lockdown on Thursday night.
Edelstein said 93,000 people were inoculated in Israel on Wednesday, as the vaccination rate began to tail off. The number of people receiving the shot had reached around 150,000 per day.
According to official Health Ministry data, around 65% of those aged 60 and over have now been vaccinated in Israel. However, it was estimated that the figure could in fact be closer to 70% when factoring in smaller localities where the processing of records is done manually.
Some 1,593,000 people have now been vaccinated in Israel. Health officials have said the country will prioritize second doses in the coming weeks, and that there are enough vaccines to supply those doses to everyone who has received a first dose.