Israel study shows drop in new cases four weeks into vaccine drive

Relief for locked-down world as vaccines chart path out of pandemic

Infectious disease experts have hailed Israel’s Covid-19 declining case rates as evidence that vaccination is working – and have predicted that other countries, including the UAE, will see similar positive effects soon.

Israel had one of the world's highest coronavirus vaccination rates when adjusted for population size. Patterns of illness there can provide an early glimpse of what to expect elsewhere.

Experts say the results in Israel, which began its vaccination drive on December 19, also show that a single vaccine dose is effective at reducing illness.

About nine in 10 people over the age of 60 in Israel have been vaccinated with the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot.

Among this group, infections fell 41 per cent and admissions to hospital dropped 31 per cent after mid-January, according to Israeli health ministry figures reported in the journal Nature.

Over the same time period, there was only a 12 per cent fall in cases and five per cent fall in admissions to hospital among those under 60, of whom about three in ten have been vaccinated. The over-60s are also showing a faster drop than younger people in the number of critically ill patients.

The difference between the age groups is crucial in highlighting the effects of vaccination, as it teases out the influence of the country’s third national lockdown, which began in January.

Prof Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases researcher at the University of East Anglia in the UK, said the figures from Israel in the over 60s when compared to younger age groups were "a really clear signal" of "a fairly sustained decline in hospitalisations".
"At about four weeks after the start of the vaccination drive, when actually most people will only have had a single dose, they're beginning to see an effect," he said.

The drop in hospital admissions in Israel was happening, he said, “too soon” for it to have been the result only of people having had both the first and second doses.

 

Reports indicate that the effects of vaccination in Israel were actually seen later than some analysts had forecast, because the arrival of more transmissible variants created an upward pressure on case numbers.

Israel is one of the highest performing countries in vaccinating residents, with more than 69 shots per 100 people.

The UAE, now in first place for the number of injections per 100 residents, could be among the next countries to see an impact. Case numbers in the Emirates may already have peaked, according to official figures, although death rates, which typically lag several weeks behind, have yet to show clear signs of falling.

Chile is in third place globally in terms of vaccinations, while the UK is fourth, with about 20 shots  per 100 people.

The effect of vaccinations on hospital admissions in the UK could begin from the middle of this month, suggested Prof Hunter.

“Between the 15th and 22nd of February is probably around the time we’re likely to see some impact of our vaccination programme,” he said, referring to previously released forecasts from a group of analysts, the Covid-19 Actuaries Response Group.

Separate findings have already suggested that vaccinated healthcare workers in the UK may be less likely to test positive for coronavirus, which mirrors results identified in the Israeli population in January.

The effects of inoculations on admissions to hospital will take several weeks to kick in, according to Dr Andrew Freedman, an associate professor and infectious diseases specialist at Cardiff University in the UK.

“There’s a lag between vaccination and the development of significant protection of two to three weeks, and then a lag of between two and three weeks between someone getting infected and being admitted to hospital,” he said.

“Certainly [in Israel] they vaccinated a large proportion of their population … I think they would be the first to see that.

"That’s what I would expect if the vaccines work in a way the trials suggest they do.”

He cautioned that in the UK it may be difficult to determine what effect vaccination has on hospital admission rates as there is already a decline in case numbers because of the country's lockdown.