In the most extensive real-world test so far, Israel has demonstrated that a robust, rapid coronavirus vaccination program can have a quick and powerful impact, showing the world a plausible way out of the pandemic.
Cases of Covid-19 and hospitalizations dropped significantly among people who were vaccinated within just a few weeks, according to new studies in Israel. And early data suggests that the vaccines are working nearly as well in practice as they did in clinical trials.
But as the world races to curb the virus before more dangerous mutations spread, dire vaccine shortages may prevent other countries from replicating Israel’s success, or from stopping new variants from emerging.
And even Israel, which has outpaced every other nation in vaccinating its people, is far from out of the woods. The country extended its third nationwide lockdown on Thursday.
Still, researchers found hope in the vaccine’s ability to quickly drive down cases among Israelis getting the shots.
“I find this pretty persuasive that we are seeing actual effects of population-level vaccination,” said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who was not involved with the Israeli study.
The new Israeli research looked at national health statistics for people 60 years and older, who received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine first because of their high risk. Analyzing data from six weeks into the vaccination campaign, when the majority of people that age had been vaccinated, they found that the number of new Covid-19 cases dropped by 41 percent compared to three weeks earlier.
That group also experienced a 31 percent drop in hospitalizations from the coronavirus, and a drop of 24 percent of those who became critically ill.
The results are all the more striking, experts said, because Israel is contending with a worrisome new variant of the coronavirus. The variant B.1.1.7, first identified in Britain, now accounts for up to 80 percent of the samples tested in Israel.
Despite its successes, Israel remains vulnerable. After a dip in new cases at the end of January, the average rate is climbing back up again. The contagiousness of the B.1.1.7 variant may be partly to blame, along with lower compliance with the current lockdown compared to previous ones. And all but a handful of Palestinians in the occupied territories are still waiting for vaccines, leaving them and Israelis less protected in any new surges.
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