Israel doubles down on Covid booster shots as breakthrough cases rise

An Israeli man receives a third vaccination against coronavirus disease (COVID-19) when the country came on Jan.

Nir Elias | Reuters

Israeli lawmakers are keen to avoid another lockdown after overseeing one of the world’s fastest vaccination campaigns. However, the daily new infections with the corona virus have just risen to record levels.

While many nations struggled with the rapid spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant, Covid-19 transmission in Israel fell sharply as the country vaccinated more than half of its population in about two months.

The country had one of the fastest vaccination programs in the world, and in early June many of its coronavirus restrictions were lifted as the number of new cases fell dramatically. But just a few days later, the masks were put back on when the number of new infections began to rise.

Around 63% of the Israeli population is fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data.

The Covid-19 cases in Israel have increased sharply since July despite the high vaccination rate. New daily cases in the country hit an all-time high of 12,113 on August 24, beating the January high of 11,934.

Months ago, the number of new infections had declined in the double-digit range, in May and June there were a few days on which no new infections were recorded.

There were 992 new cases of Covid-19 per million people in Israel on Monday. By comparison, the US had 446 new cases per million population, according to statistics from Our World in Data.

Despite the high number of so-called “breakthrough cases”, morbidity in the country has not exceeded the peak recorded in January, which is largely attributed to the introduction of vaccination. 25 deaths were recorded in Israel on Sunday – far from the record high of 101 on January 20 this year. Last month, Israel recorded 476 deaths from Covid-19, compared to 1,471 in January. But hospital stays and deaths are increasing.

Of course, anyone over the age of 12 in Israel can be vaccinated against Covid-19.

Hope for vaccination boosters

Preliminary data released by the Israeli government in July showed that the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine was only 16% effective against symptomatic infections in people who received two doses in January. In people fully vaccinated by April, the vaccine was 79% effective against symptomatic infections, suggesting that the immunity gained from immunization decreases over time.

However, the analysis concluded that the vaccine offered strong protection against serious illness and hospitalization caused by Covid-19.

In late July, Israel began offering a third dose of vaccine to anyone over 60, a move that was quickly expanded. Over the course of August, the booster program was gradually expanded to include a larger part of the population, and the third vaccination has been available to everyone over the age of 30 since Tuesday.

Israelis who receive a booster dose have to wait five months after their second dose before they are eligible for their third.

Professor Eyal Leshem, an infectious disease specialist at Sheba Medical Center who has treated patients on the Israeli front, told CNBC by phone that while the number of serious illnesses has increased, the rate of serious illness has remained “much lower”.

“We attribute this to the fact that most of our adult population were vaccinated with two doses and more than a million people received the third booster dose,” he said.

“Serious disease rates among those who were vaccinated are about a tenth of those among those who have not been vaccinated, which means the vaccine is still over 90% effective in preventing serious illnesses,” added Leshem. “People who received the booster dose also have a much, much lower risk of getting infected, as our short-term data shows.”

Leshem said in Israel one million of the country’s 9 million residents have already been confirmed to be naturally infected.

“We believe that when we have 1 million confirmed, we will likely have hundreds of thousands more, if not more, who have been ‘silently infected’,” he said, noting that this may help prevent the vaccine to strengthen given immunity.

Ultimately, according to Leshem, the goal is not to eliminate Covid-19, but to achieve a state of “equilibrium”.

“Covid circulates worldwide and it also circulates in wildlife so it will be very difficult, if at all, to eradicate,” he said. “So the majority of the population will eventually become infected. Hopefully this will be the case after they are protected with vaccines and the infection is mild.”

“Many infectious diseases initially appeared in pandemic form and then reached equilibrium. The most important question, of course, is how long will it take for us to live normally with Covid? Is it for several years or more? The vaccines “speed up that process because they allow more people to become infected naturally without developing serious illness,” Leshem said.

Gideon Schreiber, a professor at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, told CNBC on a phone call that while the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine appeared to be less effective in preventing the transmission of Covid-19 over time, Israel’s vaccine booster program did Seem to make “a big difference”. “

“I guess in a couple of weeks we’ll see a huge decrease in the disease from the third dose of vaccine,” he said. “If you look at the over-60s, who made up most of the seriously ill people, the likelihood of getting a serious illness with the Delta was about four or five times less likely [after their second dose]. But now they are more than ten times less likely to get serious illness after the third shot. “

This is likely due to the fresh antibodies produced in people who received a third dose of the vaccine. It is believed that a decrease in antibodies over time may be behind the declining immunity of people who received two doses of Covid-19 vaccination, but no vaccine is ever 100% effective in preventing disease.

“We are now at a very fast pace on the third vaccination so I expect the results will be very clear and we will see an overall decline in major illnesses and diseases in the near future.” [in general]”, Said Schreiber.

Vaccination surge

Israeli lawmakers are keen to avoid reintroducing draconian measures and are urging people who are eligible for any dose of the vaccine to get their vaccination. The reintroduction of some measures to contain Covid sparked protests in Tel Aviv earlier this month.

“I do not want to impose a lock and will avoid a lock at all costs,” Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz told the Israeli broadcaster Channel 12 TV at the time. “Everything is open – but we need masks and we need vaccines.”

Schreiber also said he believed the vaccination warranted an end to lockdown measures, despite the high number of breakthrough cases in Israel and elsewhere.

“The cases aren’t so much the problem, the severity really is the problem,” he said.

“If you can reduce the number of seriously ill people enough not to overload the system, and if you can treat them reasonably well – and treatment is better now – then lockdown really isn’t a good solution. Maybe it was good before there was a vaccine, but now that severe cases are controllable, I’m not a big proponent of this measure. “

Schreiber told CNBC that immunization should be the focus at this stage of the pandemic.

“What we need is a vaccination, and the vaccination is very successful now in Israel, it really seems to be working,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll see a real decrease in cases in a few weeks, and in severe cases we will [already] see a big reduction. The numbers show that very, very clearly at the moment. “

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