Just how successful is Israel’s vaccine push?
Israel is reporting promising initial results from its COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the fastest in the world.
The first official findings released by the health ministry show that only 0.04% of people caught the virus a week after their second dose, and a mere 0.002% needed hospital treatment.
Clalit, the country’s largest health service organisation, has also released its preliminary data. It compared 200 000 people aged 60 and over who’ve been vaccinated with 200 000 similar unvaccinated older adults. It found that the rate of those who tested positive dropped 33% among the vaccinated 14 days after they received it. No decline was seen in the unvaccinated.
Maccabi, another healthcare organisation, saw an even larger drop. Infections decreased 60% among 430 000 people 13 to 21 days after they received the vaccine. The data also suggested the vaccine was 92% effective, close to the 95% efficacy claimed by Pfizer.
Israeli researchers are conducting more in-depth analysis, and point out that real-world effectiveness of vaccines is often lower than the efficacy seen in clinical trials due to a number of factors.
But experts warn that this data has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal so it should be viewed with some caution.
There are also various factors that could be influencing the results. The current lockdown and behaviour such as travelling and gathering less, wearing masks, and greater physical distancing might be decreasing infections.
The first people to receive the vaccine were mostly from vulnerable populations, so they are more likely to take precautions which could also skew the data.
In spite of the encouraging news, the death toll from COVID-19 continues to climb. Of the 4 816 fatalities at the time of writing, 30% occurred in January when the vaccination rollout was already in full swing. The government blames this on the more transmissible British variant of the virus, especially among children. According to Clalit, when the vaccination campaign started in late December, the new variant caused 30% to 40% of infections, whereas now that figure has doubled.
As for the South African strain, there are currently 80 detected cases in Israel, and there is concern that the vaccine isn’t as effective against this variant. A number of Israelis who previously had COVID-19 have been re-infected with the South African strain, with the most recent case identified two days ago.
Compounding the situation is the flagrant disregard by the ultra-Orthodox community, that comprises just less than 13% of the population, for lockdown rules. Since the start of the pandemic, one in five ultra-Orthodox has tested positive.
Many in the community doubt the safety of the vaccine or believe the country’s citizens are being used as guinea pigs to test its efficacy. Prominent rabbis have also said that communal prayer and study needs to overwrite lockdown concerns.
Last Sunday, 31 January, thousands of ultra-Orthodox mourners, many without masks, crowded together to attend two funerals of famous rabbis who died from coronavirus. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been criticised for not cracking down harshly enough on the community for political reasons – he needs their votes in the upcoming 23 March election.
Residents of Tel Aviv spoke to the SA Jewish Report, complaining that the actions of the ultra-Orthodox were forcing the whole country to go repeatedly into lockdown, and it wasn’t fair. It’s no surprise thus that the latest word from the government is that the current – third – nationwide lockdown may not be Israel’s last.
Many Israelis want cities and towns to once again be divided into red, orange, yellow, and green zones and scales of restrictions to be put in place accordingly. This would mean those who obey the restrictions wouldn’t have to pay the price of those who don’t.
In recent days, there’s also growing concern in some quarters in Israel that because the mass vaccination campaign is running in parallel with an active coronavirus outbreak, it could lead to an “evolutionary pressure” on the virus in which it would ultimately become immune to vaccination. Doctors are suggesting that in future, people will need to take an annual anti-COVID-19 jab, much in the same way the annual flu injection is taken.
But for now, the race to innoculate everyone is on. Among the first to be injected were people aged 60 or older. More than two-thirds of this age group have already received the required two doses. Up to 200 000 people are being injected each day, and the vaccine is now available to anyone over the age of 35. High-school students aged 16 to 18 are also included in the hope that they will be able to sit for exams. It seems Netanyahu is on track to fulfil his promise of innoculating five million of the country’s nine million citizens by the end of March.
To date, just more than one in three Israelis has been inoculated – about 1.7 million of them twice. Because this is a far higher fraction than anywhere else in the world, it makes the country a test case for the international vaccine push.
Closer ties between Zim and Israel rattles ANC
Zimbabwe and Israel have had full diplomatic relations since 1993, but further overtures by our northern neighbour to the Jewish state could cause conflict with South Africa, particularly certain factions in the African National Congress (ANC).
According to an article by Carien du Plessis published on News24 on Wednesday, 3 February, “Zimbabwe has been seeking closer ties with Israel in the hope of securing more investment and doing away with sanctions. This move has caused unease within the ANC, which has a pro-Palestinian stance, although it’s unlikely the party will act on it.
“The ruling party [in Zimbabwe], ZANU-PF, has historically positioned itself as pro-Palestinian, but Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s latest move closer to Israel represents a change in policy direction,” Du Plessis writes.
She reports that although the head of the ANC committee on international relations, Lindiwe Zulu, said that, “We cannot interfere with the sovereign decisions of the governing party of any other government”, there have been divisions within ZANU-PF and within the ANC about the Israel matter.
“A pro-Palestine lobby within the ANC wants South Africa’s governing party to take a more hardline approach to its Zimbabwean counterpart, while the pragmatists prefer not to push this issue for diplomatic reasons,” Du Plessis says.
Darren Bergman, the shadow minister for international relations and cooperation and a member of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Parliamentary Forum Human Rights Committee, didn’t mince his words about South Africa’s response.
“The people of Zimbabwe are suffering. The internal affairs of Zimbabwe couldn’t get South Africa to act, the situation in Zimbabwe couldn’t get South Africa to act, but the relationship with Israel gets South Africa to act,” he said.
“This is a sinister situation that must make the SADC and African Union [AU] question what exactly South Africa’s situation is with regard to the Middle East,” Bergman said.
“It’s one thing to have an opinion and a position, but it’s another to keep a hard-pressed, almost spiteful stance at all times that can actually harm and injure the people and the continent. To this I would say that South Africa should show diplomatic constraint, and hold back.”
One of Mnangagwa’s recent moves to improve relations with Israel is the appointment last year of Israeli national Ronny Levi Musan as honorary consul of Zimbabwe to Israel.
The Afro-Middle East Centre reported in October 2020 that, “Musan has set plans into motion for Mnangagwa’s official visit to Israel. His activities in Zimbabwe include collaboration with Pentecostal churches to push for Christian support for Israel. Zimbabwe’s honorary consul is also pushing for Israeli businesses to invest in Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector, and he recently announced the intention to open an Israeli academy of agriculture in Zimbabwe. On the diplomatic front, Israel hopes that Mnangagwa will follow the example of his Malawian counterpart, Lazarus Chakwera, who announced plans to open an embassy in Jerusalem.”
Musan told the SA Jewish Report he had worked in Africa for the past 20 years to strengthen links between churches and the Holy Land. “About five years ago, I was invited to visit Zimbabwe which lasted about two weeks. I tried to do everything possible to connect Zimbabwe to Israel on a practical level. After the first visit, I visited Zimbabwe several more times, and met a number of ministers and church leaders, and just fell in love with the place.
“From there, it continued through my activities with the Israeli foreign ministry and the foreign ministry in Zimbabwe to promote diplomatic relations between the countries.” He was eventually appointed to this role.
“My main responsibility is to do everything possible in every field to bring knowledge and support from Israel to Zimbabwe, and vice versa. The main issue is technology in the field of agriculture, education, and innovation. These are the cornerstones that will return the crown to Zimbabwe as the ‘grain basket of Africa’.”
Local political analyst Daniel Silke says that Zimbabwe’s overtures to Israel “could well be an attempt by Zimbabwe to follow the Sudan example, in which currying favour with the United States via the channel of restoring relations with Israel allows the country to receive assistance and perhaps even escape some of the worst sanctions. But, of course, [former US] President Donald Trump is no longer in the White House. Whether this will have any traction with Joe Biden, who I think will be a lot more critical of the Zimbabwean regime, remains to be seen.”
In terms of the impact it could have on South African-Israel relations, Silke says, “Many other African countries are forging their own path in terms of relations with Israel. For President [Cyril] Ramaphosa, it’s a difficult balancing act given the demands from within his own party. But I don’t think South Africa has any leg to stand on in terms of interference with any country which wishes to forge some sort of close relationship with the Jewish state. As head of the AU, Ramaphosa is again in a tough position because of the changing dynamics across Africa, but I don’t think it’s an issue that will really get much attention.”
Rowan Polovin, the chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation, says, “We see this as a positive development, particularly for Southern Africa, which is part of the momentum that is being created by the Abraham Accords.
“Northern Africa has been very much part of the momentum. In the southern region, Malawi, which is diplomatically and geographically close to South Africa, has signalled its intention to open an embassy in Israel. If all this has an impact on South Africa’s neighbours, then South Africa will see the benefits. It’s very hard to ignore the importance of building ties with Israel, which has so many solutions for African issues, particularly water, electricity, agriculture, and security. Notwithstanding the noise that the ANC might make, ultimately it’s positive.”
The right to demonstrate, even during lockdown
Israelis are being allowed out of their homes in full lockdown to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi), who is viewed by many on both sides of the political spectrum as corrupt.
This freedom in a lockdown which ordinarily limits you to being no more than one kilometre from your house is based on the country’s constitutional right to protest. On bridges, at junctions, and outside Bibi’s house in Jerusalem, daily protests occur, resuming after Shabbat goes out on Saturday night.
“Lech! Lech!” (Go!) is shouted loudly – which is also the name for the movement against Netanyahu.
There are some staunch Likud followers who scream, “Arafat and Rabin sold out the country,” prompting laughter amongst some demonstrators, who point out that their arguments are old and outdated. Demonstrators including doctors, lawyers, pilots, accountants, and students point out that this isn’t about the Israel-Palestine issue, it’s not about being leftist or rightist, but about ethics and bringing to justice an allegedly corrupt prime minister.
The protestors are passionate, some defying orders not to camp outside Bibi’s residence. At 21:30, police order the drums, trumpets, and whistles to cease. The protestors obey, but continue to demonstrate quietly, so as not to disturb the Jerusalem neighbourhood.
Then, at about 23:00, carrying Israeli flags in blue and white and others in red and white, the protestors pack up and go home to lockdown.
As Israel vaccinates, South Africa negotiates
While countries like Israel have already vaccinated many of its people, South Africa is still negotiating the procurement of vaccines in the battle against COVID-19.
The vaccine rollout is already in its second phase in Israel after a three week-long inoculation drive. More than 20% of the population has had its first shot of the vaccine (the highest percentage globally) and all Israelis could be immunised by Pesach, according to the Times of Israel.
South Africa is way behind, although the government plans to vaccinate two-thirds of the population by the end of 2021. The delay has drawn criticism from many corners, accusing the government and the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) on COVID-19 vaccines of being too slow to act.
“The initial negotiations utilised the pool procurement mechanisms of COVAX,” Barry Schoub, professor emeritus of virology at the University of the Witwatersrand and MAC chairperson, told the SA Jewish Report last week.
“We signed up for the vaccine for about 10% of the population. COVAX does the purchasing of the vaccine and tells us when to expect it, which is either at the end of the first quarter or into the second quarter of this year,” Schoub said.
In addition, South Africa also entered into bilateral agreements with vaccine manufacturers directly.
“The first tranche of a million AstraZeneca Oxford vaccinations are expected this month. They are being provided by the Serum Institute of India, the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world, and a further half million are expected in February,” said Schoub.
“This first tranche is a limited, emergency supply, essentially for use by our healthcare workers only.” Those who fall into this category will be further divided into subcategories, depending on how exposed they are to COVID-19 patients and other risk factors.”
The next phase targets a greater portion of the population, but is still limited to key personnel like security workers, retail workers, teachers, and other essential workers, according to Schoub. Additionally, people who live in congregate environments (such as prisons and institutions) fall into this phase, as do people who are 60 or older, or older than 18 with co-morbidities.
“The last tranche targets the rest of the population at a time when we’re trying to achieve universal immunisation for as many people as possible,” said Schoub. “That will come later on.
“There are ongoing negotiations involving the medical aid industry as well as the business sector to secure the funding needed for the additional vaccines for the entire population. Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize has committed to getting two-thirds of the population (more than 40 million people in total) immunised by the end of the year,” Schoub said.
“It’s a massive challenge, but the minister seems confident. It means administering almost 300 000 vaccines a day, so we’ll need to mount a huge campaign if we’re to do it.”
Schoub was at pains to rectify his misquoted statement regarding the efficacy of vaccines against the virus after it was said that he didn’t believe a vaccine would work.
“I wrote in Daily Maverick that the vaccine isn’t a magic wand that will make the virus disappear immediately,” he said. “It will take time, but it will work. In the meantime, it’s imperative that we carry out the standard health precautions meticulously. They are the only tools we have to control the infection.
“Even when South Africa has the vaccine, a lot will depend on our behaviour.”
Schoub responded to the recent letter published by medical professionals in South Africa accusing government of bungling vaccine procurement. “Our colleagues ignore the fact that negotiations are underway and may have an agenda in going on the rampage to criticise. If you look at the epidemic, it has three consequences: conspiracy theories, miracle drugs, and the blame game.
“Unfortunately, the blame game is taken up by scientists, and is undermining public trust.”
On BBC’s HardTalk, Schoub said he blamed the system for any issues that have arisen in securing vaccines. “Vaccines shouldn’t be treated as a commodity. When profit drives the purchase of a vaccine, it’s a problem. Thirteen percent of the global population has bought up 51% of the production of vaccines.
“We aren’t a wealthy country, but a middle-income country with severe economic woes. We had a choice to put down R2.4 billion during trials on vaccines we didn’t know would work or not. High-income countries could afford to do that. Our advisory did recommend negotiating, but for whatever reason, the government couldn’t afford the deposit and the risk.”
Discovery founder and chief executive Adrian Gore told the SA Jewish Report that he felt positive about the government’s vaccine-procurement programme. Gore has been involved in the programme at government level, chairing a team tasked with securing funding and arranging the logistics of vaccine distribution.
“There has been a considerable amount of work done by government and business over the past two months to ensure funding is secure, that vaccines are accessed and procured, and a lot of work is going into distribution,” he said.
“The last speech by the president outlined a schedule, and if we can meet it, we should make good progress. Healthcare workers will receive the vaccine in the next couple of weeks and a lot more doses are in the pipeline.”
He said Discovery was doing whatever it could to help the government progress effectively, and felt confident in the progress made so far.
As far as matters in Israel are concerned, spirits are high as the vaccine rollout forges ahead.
“It feels almost festive in Israel right now,” said Ilan Ossendryver, a South African photographer currently in Israel. “In spite of being in another lockdown, there are banners flying everywhere and people are excited to be getting vaccinated, taking selfies with signs that say, ‘I got vaccinated’. It’s amazing.”
The holder of an Israeli passport, Ossendryver received a vaccination last Sunday after contacting Tel Hashomer Hospital in Tel Aviv to find out if he was eligible for the shot.
“I had a booking within 20 minutes,” he said. “I don’t have Israeli medical aid, but they gave me a time and I joined hundreds of other people on Sunday afternoon and had the shot within 10 minutes. They had me wait 15 minutes to check for side-effects before letting me go, and I’ll get the second dose later this month.
“It feels incredible to think that you’re carrying something that could help save you from getting sick. Nothing is certain, but you know you’re a step ahead.”
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