In the most comprehensive real-world test to date, Israel has shown that a strong coronavirus vaccination program can have a quick and powerful impact, showing the world a plausible way out of the pandemic.
Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations have dropped dramatically among those vaccinated within weeks, according to new studies in Israel, where the rapid distribution of the vaccine has turned the country into a kind of testing laboratory for the world. And early data suggests vaccines work almost as well in practice as they do in clinical trials.
“We say with caution, the magic has begun,” Eran Segal, a quantitative biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science and co-author of a new study on the effect of the vaccine in Israel, wrote on Twitter.
The promising vaccine news does not mean a free ticket to a post-pandemic future.
As the world struggles to contain the virus before more dangerous mutations spread, the vaccine shortage may prevent other countries from replicating Israel’s success or the emergence of new variants.
Even Israel, which has outperformed all countries in immunizing its population, is not completely immune to the problem. The country extended its national lockout on Thursday (11).
Still, researchers have found hope in the vaccine’s ability to rapidly reduce cases among immune Israelis.
“I find it quite convincing that we are seeing real effects of vaccination at the population level,” said William Hanage, a public health researcher at Harvard University, who was not involved in the study in Israel. .
Israel’s real-world news adds to other signs of hope after months of drought. A growing number of vaccines are showing high efficacy against Covid-19, especially against serious diseases. Some tests suggest that vaccines may even have the potential to slow the transmission of the virus.
The new study in Israel looked at national health statistics for people aged 60 or older, who first received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine because they were at high risk. Analyzing data from the six-week vaccination campaign, when most people this age had been vaccinated, they found that the number of new cases of Covid-19 fell 41% from three weeks earlier .
This group also saw a 31% reduction in hospitalizations for the coronavirus and a 24% decrease in those who became seriously ill.
The study is important, in part, because the authors were able to isolate other factors, including lockdowns, which also reduce the number of infections. The researchers found that even taking these factors into account, the vaccines had a strong effect.
The magnitude of this effect has not yet been determined.
But new data released Thursday by one of Israel’s largest health networks suggests vaccine protection in practice may be almost as good as it was in the clinical trial.
The immunizing agent had a 95% effectiveness rate in clinical trials. Researchers warned in November that those numbers may not stay in the real world.
People who volunteered for testing may not represent the population as a whole, for example. In addition, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is difficult to administer nationally, as it must be stored frozen just before administration.
But Maccabi Health Services reported on Thursday that of the 416,900 people who had vaccinated only 254 people had taken Covid a week after the second dose. In addition, all cases were mild. Comparing this rate to that of unvaccinated people, the researchers estimated the vaccine to be 91% effective.
The results are even more surprising, experts said, as Israel faces a worrying new strain of coronavirus. Variant B.1.17 now represents 80% of the samples tested in the country.
First identified in the UK in December, the variant has spread to 72 other countries and may be up to 50% more transmissible than other variants.
Israel is the world leader in immunizing citizens. So far, over a third of the population of over 9 million people have received the first dose of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and nearly 2 million people have received the second dose.
The first target was citizens over 60, an age group that accounts for 95% or more of the more than 5,000 Covid-19 deaths in Israel. According to the Ministry of Health, 84% of this group have been vaccinated.
As a relatively small country with a universal and highly digitalized healthcare system, Israel has become an interesting testing ground for Pfizer. As a result, the country struck a deal with the company to offer data in exchange for a constant stream of vaccines.
Despite its successes, Israel remains vulnerable. After a drop in new cases at the end of January, the average rate is on the rise again. The transferability of the B.1.17 variant may be partly to blame, as well as the lesser adhesion to the current lockdown, compared to previous ones.
And nearly all Palestinians in the occupied territories are still waiting for vaccines, leaving them and Israelis less protected from any further epidemics.
There is also no way of knowing what would happen if a more disturbing new variant began to spread in Israel. A variant first identified in South Africa is not only more contagious, but it can also make vaccines less effective.
At the same time, Israel’s much-vaunted immunization program appears to have come to a halt as the number of vaccinated has dropped dramatically over the past week, suggesting that initial Israeli enthusiasm may wane. The slowdown has left some vaccination centers abandoned this week.
The vaccination program has met resistance from some groups, especially ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arab citizens, two communities hard hit by the virus.
Experts also pointed to gaps in the Weizmann Institute study, which need to be addressed.
Hagai Levine, a public health researcher at the Hebrew Hadassah University in Jerusalem, warned that scientists only observed general trends in the country and did not follow those vaccinated.
As a result, the study raises several questions that it cannot answer. It is not clear, for example, why researchers did not see a reduction in cases, serious illnesses and hospitalizations until three weeks after the start of the campaign. In the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine clinical trial, researchers saw the first signs of protection around ten days after the first dose.
It is possible that the effect was slower in Israel because the vaccination campaign was aimed mainly at the elderly, whose immune systems would take longer to build up a defense.
“The message to the world is that even if you are vaccinating at an insane rate, like Israel, you have to be patient,” said Hagai Rossman, co-author of the Weizmann study. “There is no magic wand.”