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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 7 March 2021

World’s fastest Covid-19 vaccine programme slowed down by Israeli public trust hurdles

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed his country will be the first to overcome the coronavirus

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed that his country will be the first to overcome Covid-19. But significant obstacles remain for the nation leading the world’s fastest vaccination programme.

“We are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” Mr Netanyahu said earlier this month. “If we all take care to be vaccinated and keep the rules, we will be the first country in the world to emerge from this.”

More than 29 per cent of Israelis have received their first dose, according to health ministry data.

The figure excludes about five million Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied West Bank, who face a lengthy wait for vaccines.

Within Israel, the initial speed of the vaccine programme was put down to a variety of factors, from digitised health records to a flexible approach to administering doses.

Such an approach has set Israel on course to immunise about 70 per cent of the population by the end of March or early April, Dr Salmon said.

But it cannot meet such an ambitious target without first winning the trust of communities wary of the authorities and the vaccine, such as ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arab-Israelis.

“We are spending a lot of effort and money to have specific campaigns in these communities. It’s not easy,” said Dr Asher Salmon, the health ministry’s head of international relations.

Vaccinating marginalised groups

Clalit, the largest of Israel’s four healthcare providers, has run an outreach campaign involving everything from television advertising to phone calls, e-mails and in-person discussions.

“The overarching point is public trust,” said Dr Diane Levin-Zamir, who heads Clalit’s health education and promotion department.

But even if the majority of adults agree to be vaccinated, health experts do not foresee a return to normal life in the near future.

Dr Eyal Leshem of Sheba Medical Centre, which treated Israel’s first coronavirus patients last February, said vaccines cannot eliminate the risks.

“We will still need some measures of social distancing, face masks and restrictions, even if most of the population is protected by a vaccine,” said Dr Leshem, the director of Sheba’s Centre for Travel Medicine and Tropical Diseases.

Israel has about 72,000 active coronavirus cases, out of a population of nine million, while Covid-19 has killed almost 4,500 people.

With fears of more transmissible coronavirus variants spreading in Israel, such as those detected in the UK, South Africa and Brazil, authorities are tightening rather than loosening restrictions.

A complex problem

The government has announced plans to ground international flights from midnight on Monday, for an initial six-day period.

“It’s like a Rubik’s Cube,” said Dr Levin-Zamir from Clalit’s health education department. “On one side you’re doing well, then once you move one side, issues on the other side come up and it affects you.”

Looking three months ahead, she hoped schools would be open but predicted universities and any businesses that can function online will still be doing so.

The time line is expected to be considerably longer for Palestinians, who have applied to join the Covax global scheme, which will help cash-strapped governments vaccinate 20 per cent of their population.

The Palestinian Authority also aims to buy additional doses. A PA health official did not respond to an enquiry about the schedule.

Israel’s decision not to vaccinate Palestinians – including the thousands crossing West Bank checkpoints each day – could hamper the country’s ability to tackle Covid-19.

“It’s clear that to get rid of this we need to see our Palestinian neighbours being vaccinated and it is certainly a concern for us,” Dr Salmon said.

“Before we vaccinate our neighbours we must vaccinate our citizens,” he said.

While some countries are struggling to source shots, Israel signed a deal with Pfizer that guarantees the supply of the company’s vaccine in exchange for health ministry data.

The agreement aims to “evaluate whether herd immunity” can be achieved through the vaccine programme.

It will stand as a test case which may be replicated by other countries with robust healthcare systems, bolstered by public information campaigns. But Israel will have to wait months to learn whether its vaccination drive means its third nationwide lockdown will be the last.

“It’s very difficult to predict because the one major unknown is how good the vaccine is at preventing infection,” Dr Leshem said. “The Israeli experience will teach the rest of the world a lot.”

Updated: January 26, 2021 11:24 AM

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