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Israel reportedly set to begin COVID vaccination drive next week

Netanyahu and coronavirus czar say shots will be administered earlier than planned; Nachman Ash says he believes many currently restricted activities can resume by Passover

Illustrative: An NHS pharmacy technician at the Royal Free Hospital, simulates the preparation of the Pfizer vaccine to support staff training ahead of the rollout, in London, December 4, 2020. (Yui Mok/Pool Photo via AP)
Illustrative: An NHS pharmacy technician at the Royal Free Hospital, simulates the preparation of the Pfizer vaccine to support staff training ahead of the rollout, in London, December 4, 2020. (Yui Mok/Pool Photo via AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the top official overseeing the government’s pandemic response on Sunday said the start of Israel’s vaccination drive would be moved up from its target date of December 27, with Hebrew media reports saying it would begin next Sunday.

“The end of the pandemic is in sight. Until then I ask [everyone] to observe the rules,” Netanyahu said during a visit to a mass-immunization station in Tel Aviv.

“What I can tell you today is that we are on the way to bringing forward the vaccinations,” added the prime minister, who has said he would like to be the first in the country to be immunized to encourage Israelis to get the vaccine.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash also said health officials were working to move up the planned date to begin inoculating Israelis with Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine from December 27, after US regulators gave the inoculation the go-ahead. The vaccine has yet to be approved in Israel, but the director of the Health Ministry has signaled it could be green-lighted in the coming days.

“It needs to be done in an orderly and responsible way. We want the logistics to work as needed, with all the approvals received,” Ash said. “We’ll set out very quickly, and within a few months we’ll reach the target of a large proportion of the population that is vaccinated.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touches the first batch of Pfizer vaccines to arrive in Israel at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, December 9, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Hebrew media reports said the drive would begin Sunday, December 20. The Maccabi health maintenance organization can begin administering 25,000 vaccines a day by next week, according to Channel 12. Netanyahu has set a target of 60,000 vaccines a day once the drive begins, meaning two million Israelis would be vaccinated by the end of January.

Ash on Sunday also said he hopes Israelis will be able to celebrate Passover in an almost restriction-free manner this year.

“I assume that in March-April we’ll already return to significant activity. My hope is that we can celebrate Passover in an almost free manner,” Ash told the Ynet news site.

He stressed this would depend on the vaccination take-up rate by Passover, also known as the Jewish festival of freedom, which will begin the evening of March 28.

“This is my opportunity to call on people to get vaccinated and thus we’ll create herd immunity in the Israeli public and we can return to full activity,” Ash said.

Border Police officers and an IDF soldier at a temporary checkpoint in Jerusalem on April 14, 2020, ahead of the start of a nationwide closure for the Passover holiday. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

During Passover 2020, which fell during the initial outbreak of the pandemic, the government ordered an overnight curfew, confining Israelis to their homes for the first night of the holiday. Slightly less stringent lockdown measures were also imposed during the last night of Passover, barring Israelis from leaving their hometowns.

Sweeping restrictions on movement and gatherings were also put in place for the autumn holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

Earlier Sunday, a military task force said the planned vaccination drive would not have a marked impact on the coronavirus pandemic until the end of winter.

In light of this prediction, the Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center called for widespread mask-wearing to minimize contagion until there is a “real influence of the vaccines” on curbing morbidity in the country.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash visits the Jerusalem Municipality on November 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The task force’s forecast was disputed by Eran Segal, a computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, who noted a significant number of Israelis could soon be vaccinated if the goal of immunizing 60,000 a day is met.

“According to our models and scenarios, this means that after a month you can vaccinate almost every risk group in Israel,” he was quoted saying by Ynet. “Very quickly at this pace you can vaccinate the entire population above the age of 65-70. You dramatically lower the effect on both morbidity and basic reproductive number.”

An Israeli nurse seen during a simulated vaccination against the coronavirus, at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

If the vaccine is indeed effective, Segal predicted there would be a “significant drop” in new infections 1.5 months after the vaccine begins to be administered on a large scale.

“We’ll see a lot fewer seriously ill people and death and we can talk about accelerating the exit plan,” he said.

Israel has purchased millions of doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, and the first batch landed at Ben Gurion Airport on Wednesday.

The expected approval by Israel of the vaccine comes as the country grapples with rising infection numbers, with officials weighing plans to tighten restrictions — and then backing down.

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