The vacci-nation: how Israel got on the front foot with COVID-19 immunisation

By on 25/01/2021 | Updated on 27/01/2021
Governments and citizens around the world are watching Israel’s COVID-19 vaccine programme closely. Credit: tortensimon/304 images/pixabay

Israel’s rapid roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccination makes it both a trailblazer and a guinea pig for the rest of the world, and presents lessons for civil servants charged with ramping up mass vaccination programmes.

About 2.3m Israeli citizens have received one dose of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, the FT reports, equating to about one third of the adult population; more than 600,000 have had their second jabs.

In time, the country’s infection rates will provide a good indication of how effectively widespread vaccination is likely to contain the virus globally. “The real test of this vaccination drive will only come a week after we have reached a critical mass of at least 70% of the population receiving their second shot,” Ido Hadari, director of government relations at Maccabi Healthcare Services, one of the organisations involved in vaccination, told the FT.

Securing supplies

Meanwhile, the country’s handling of vaccinations highlights policies and services that may help other nations speed up delivery.

Supply is of course essential, and Israel has secured plentiful amounts of both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. This could be partly due to cost: while no figures have been officially shared, some reports suggest Israel is paying more than other countries.

The state also struck a deal with Pfizer to secure 10m doses of the vaccine by mid-March, according to Israeli publisher Globes, in return for access to data tracking the programme’s effectiveness.

Israel has published a “collaboration agreement” with Pfizer. The objective of the project is to “measure and analyse epidemiological data arising from the Product [vaccine] rollout, to determine whether herd immunity is achieved after reaching a certain percentage of vaccination coverage in Israel”, according to a redacted document published by the government. Data sharing will include information such as weekly case numbers as well as vaccine figures “as total and by age and other demographic subgroups”, the document says.

Securing citizen buy-in

The Israeli government also realised that communication would be paramount. In autumn last year, a survey reported in Israeli newspaper Haaretz suggested that 52% of citizens would not take the vaccine in the first round.

In response, the government established a public information campaign and targeted different sections of the population in their own languages. For example, the Health Ministry published videos in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and Amharic on subjects such as the efficacy of vaccines.  

In addition, the ministry engaged with people who are regarded as having particular authority in their communities. For example, Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein, a leading Orthodox authority, put out a statement saying that the “medicine should be taken”. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu also became one of the first citizens to receive the vaccine, broadcast live on television.  

That said, the government has faced criticism. At the end of last year, it continued to vaccinate on Shabbat, Judaism’s day of rest, despite opposition from some leading rabbis, according to the Times of Israel. In response, health minister Yuli Edelstein invoked “pikuah nefesh”, the principle that saving human lives surpasses any other religious rule.

Secure infrastructure

Israel’s healthcare system is also helping the vaccine rollout, according to some experts. Alongside a relatively small population and universal health service for citizens, Israelis’ health records are stored digitally. This makes it easier to prioritise key groups such as the elderly or clinically vulnerable and get in contact to offer the vaccine. Appointments can be made by phone, on the health department’s website or via specially established apps to maximise take-up.

Working with manufacturers, the health department has also found ways to repackage packs of vaccines into bundles of as few as 100 doses to supply them to small clinics in the community.

In a neat summary on Twitter, Judit Vásárhelyi-Kondor, head of the Berlin office of strategic advisory firm Spitzberg Partners, offers further insights into some attributes of the Israeli government’s approach.

About Adam Branson

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