Netanyahu receives Covid-19 vaccine as Israel launches national campaign

Israel orders eight million doses from Pfizer/BioNTech and six million from Moderna

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a Covid-19 vaccine on Saturday, starting a national inoculation campaign over the coming days.

Mr Netanyahu, 71, and Israel's health minister were injected with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine live on TV at Sheba Medical Centre in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv.

"I asked to be vaccinated first, together with Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, to serve as personal examples and encourage you to be vaccinated," Mr Netanyahu told the television audience.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gets ready to receive a coronavirus vaccine at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, Israel on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020. (Amir Cohen/Pool via AP)

Each recipient must get a booster shot in three weeks' time for optimal protection from coronavirus.

Latest Israeli health ministry figures reported more than 370,000 people had tested positive for the virus since the Jewish state, a country of about nine million, confirmed its first cases in February.

A little over 3,000 people have died.

We will be able to reopen the country and restore it to what it was

The vaccinations will start at 10 hospitals and centres around Israel for healthcare workers from Sunday, according to the health ministry.

During the course of the week, a ministry statement said, vaccinations will be extended to the general public, starting with those aged above 60.

Mr Netanyahu spent Monday to Friday in isolation after coming into contact with a confirmed coronavirus patient, despite testing negative for the virus on Sunday and again on Monday.

Ten days ago, he was at Israel's Ben Gurion airport to welcome a first batch of the vaccine.

The shipment was the first of eight million doses Israel ordered from US pharmaceutical company Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech.

The vaccine needs to be stored at minus 70°C, posing handling and storage challenges.

Other countries have begun giving the vaccine already.

Britain started inoculating its citizens with the same vaccine on December 8.

It has since been approved by the US, Canada and, on Saturday, Switzerland.

US Vice President Mike Pence had the vaccine live on television on Friday, while president-elect Joe Biden is scheduled to receive his shot on Monday.

President Donald Trump made it clear he is not planning to take the vaccine immediately, citing the belief that his recovery from a brief but severe bout of Covid-19 gives him immunity.

Israel also ordered six million Covid-19 vaccine doses from US biotech company Moderna, which are expected to be delivered in 2021, giving a total of 14 million shots.

Israel imposed a second nationwide lockdown in September, when the country had one of the world's highest per capita infection rates.

Restrictions have since been gradually eased, but case numbers are again on the rise, with a further clampdown predicted.

Mr Netanyahu said receiving the vaccine was a first step towards a return to normality.

"On the way here I thought about the children worried about their parents, the grandchildren who want to hug grandma and grandpa – not a Zoom hug but a real hug," he said.

"We will be able to go to football grounds, to see basketball games and, of course, to reopen the country and restore it to what it was, to go back to the normal life that we desire."

Palestinian Authority in crisis 

The Palestinian territories suffered a surge in Covid-19 cases in recent weeks.

On Thursday, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank announced stricter restrictions, including the closure of schools and universities, for two weeks to combat the spread.

Last week, PA President Mahmoud Abbas announced that Christmas mass in Bethlehem, where Christians believe Jesus was born, would be closed to the public this year because of the pandemic.

The Israeli-occupied West Bank, with a Palestinian population of more than 2.8 million, has recorded more than 88,000 coronavirus infections, including 869 deaths, according to the Palestinian health ministry's Saturday update.

The Gaza Strip, with about two million inhabitants, reported more than 33,000 cases and 248 deaths.

Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said Israel might provide vaccinations for Palestinians once it has vaccinated its own priority groups, such as frontline healthcare providers.