It’s a unique problem in a world besieged by new and more transmissible variants of the coronavirus: Israel is inoculating its population so quickly that it is running out of vaccine supplies.
It’s a medical achievement made possible by the country’s small size and its battle-ready health care system. It’s an impressive campaign that has boosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chances of victory in elections scheduled for March.
While countries such as Canada and the United States have struggled to get their vaccine doses into the arms of their citizens, Israel is now facing the opposite problem and will soon need to slow its vaccination effort to ensure it doesn’t run out.
As of Thursday, Israel had delivered the first of two prescribed doses to more than 19 per cent of its population, according to Our World in Data, a website published by Oxford University. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain ranked second and third in the inoculation race, having vaccinated just over 9.5 per cent and 4.3 per cent of their citizens, respectively, followed by Britain at 1.9 per cent and the United States at 1.8 per cent.
In Canada supplies remain high, but no province has used more than 50 per cent of its store of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The country is ranked 10th at slightly more than 0.6 vaccinations per 100 citizens.
“We’re certainly doing a pretty good job. Up until today, we’ve been accelerating our program on a daily basis … . Now, we’re reaching the end of the supply line,” Daniel Landsberger, the chief physician at Maccabi Health Services, told The Globe and Mail Wednesday. Maccabi is one of four non-profit medical providers that make up Israel’s national health care system.
The number of doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that Israel still has on hand is a closely held secret, but Dr. Landsberger said the country would soon need to stop giving new patients the first dose in order to keep enough of the vaccine on hand to ensure that all those in vulnerable groups, such as people 65 and older, get their required second shot three weeks after the first.
On Tuesday, the Health Ministry approved a second vaccine – Moderna’s – and Israel has an agreement to purchase six million doses, enough to inoculate almost half the population. It’s not yet clear, though, when the doses will arrive.
So far, more than 1.7 million Israelis have received the first shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which the country’s health authorities approved and began distributing on Dec. 19. That was nine days after Canada approved the same vaccine and 16 days after Britain became the first country in the world to begin distributing it.
Despite the progress, Mr. Netanyahu’s government ordered a national lockdown this week – Israel’s third since the pandemic began – as the country has continued to record thousands of new cases of COVID-19 every day in December and January. Almost 3,600 Israelis have died since the beginning of the health crisis.
Dr. Landsberger attributed Israel’s vaccination success to a combination of the country’s small size – 8.8 million people living in a territory a third the size of Nova Scotia – its highly digitized health service and a population that’s used to dealing with crises. The country also holds regular exercises in which the military and health services work together to respond to mock chemical and biological attacks – scenarios that are not dissimilar to dealing with a pandemic.
“We’ve been practising for quite a few years for this episode,” Dr. Landsberger said. “Over time, every health office has practised for this.”
Rivka Harel Ankava, a 66-year-old who was born in Winnipeg but now lives in Jerusalem, said she was impressed with how smoothly the system worked when she received her first dose on Dec. 29.
“It has to do with mobilization. This is a country that’s been at war many times. The fact that this is an emergency – Israelis get that and do their thing.”
Ms. Harel Ankava said it’s nonetheless difficult to grasp why Canada, where some of her family still lives, is lagging so far behind in rolling out the vaccine. “I hear from my siblings that they have nothing, that maybe [they’ll be vaccinated] in the spring. That’s something I just don’t understand.”
Controversially, Israel’s vaccine campaign does not include the five million Palestinians who live under its control in the occupied West Bank and the blockaded Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, Israel is providing vaccinations to residents of the illegal Jewish settlements that dot the West Bank.
Israel says health care in the Palestinian territories is a responsibility of the semi-autonomous Palestinian Authority. Human-rights groups, including Rabbis for Human Rights, have called on Israel to share its vaccine supply with the Palestinians, something Israel has said it might do once its own population is vaccinated.
The debate has spilled over into Canada, where B’nai Brith Canada this week accused NDP MPs Charlie Angus and Leah Gazan of anti-Semitism after the parliamentarians harshly criticized Israel for not providing vaccines to the Palestinians. Mr. Angus called Israel an “apartheid state” in his remarks.
Bassem Naim, a Palestinian physician and senior member of the militant Hamas movement that controls the Gaza Strip, told The Globe that while the Palestinian Authority – which Hamas broke away from 15 years ago when it seized power in Gaza – has responsibility for health care, Israel has a “moral responsibility” to care for those living under military occupation.
“As long as Israel is the occupying power, under international law, Israel also has duties to care for the people under occupation,” Mr. Naim said.
Israel’s impressive vaccine campaign has come just in time for Mr. Netanyahu, who is hoping the medical success and the economic recovery that’s expected to follow will deliver him a clear victory in the March 23 election after three inconclusive votes that left him at the head of weak coalition governments.
Mr. Netanyahu, who has been in office since 2009, was the first Israeli to receive the Pfizer jab on Dec. 19. He has worked hard to associate himself with the vaccination effort, repeatedly inferring that it was his personal connections that ensured Israel was among the first in line to receive vaccines. “I have brought the vaccines and you are giving the vaccines,” he recently told a clinic in an Arab town in northern Israel, where he posed with the millionth Israeli to receive a dose. “The whole world is amazed at Israel. They are writing that Israel is a wonder.”
Politics aside, Dr. Landsberger acknowledged that the eyes of the world are on his country.
“If we go on, we’re certainly going to be the first country in the world to achieve herd immunity by vaccination,” he said, adding that the achievement would provide important evidence of whether the available vaccines can indeed bring an end to the pandemic. “If it works, we can be a light unto the world.”
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