Election Pressure in Israel Speeds the Vaccination Process
As most places struggle to vaccinate even 1% of their population, in Israel 21% of residents—1.9 million people—have gotten shots since the Health Ministry began offering the vaccine from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE on Dec. 20. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says almost everyone in the country (though not Palestinians in the adjacent West Bank) will be vaccinated by early spring. “We’re moving very fast in all directions,” says Arnon Shahar, a doctor running the virus task force for Maccabi Healthcare Services, Israel’s second-largest medical network. “There’s a lot of pressure.”
Centralized government, limited territory, and a relatively small population—9.3 million—have all helped Israel reach a level of coverage that’s almost double that of the No. 2 country, the United Arab Emirates, and seven times that of the U.S. Israel’s advantages have been amplified by its universal health insurance and a digitized medical system with extensive records that allow providers to target at-risk populations and track progress. And with Netanyahu desperate to win an upcoming election, he’s made the vaccination effort a top priority.
But Israel also offers a cautionary tale about the continuing risks of the coronavirus: Despite the vaccinations, infections have surged to one of the world’s highest rates per capita. The country in late December imposed a third lockdown that shuttered schools, restaurants, and most stores and set draconian restrictions on movement. And with the rapid inoculation campaign depleting supplies, new vaccinations have slowed because Israel is reserving half its doses as boosters to be administered a few weeks after the initial treatment—in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations—rather than giving initial shots to more people and delaying follow-ups.
Netanyahu is betting a successful rollout can rekindle economic growth before Israelis head to the polls on March 23 for the fourth national election in two years. Upbeat economic news is vital for the prime minister, who faces a bribery and fraud trial that will soon require him to appear in court frequently. Opinion polls show him struggling to win sufficient backing to form a new government as he faces a strong field of challengers such as Gideon Sa’ar, a high-profile defector from his Likud party. “If the country is first to get vaccinated and first to get the economy back on track, of course it will be a major boost,” says Srulik Einhorn, a Netanyahu campaign adviser.
To keep supplies flowing, Netanyahu repeatedly called Pfizer Chief Executive Officer Albert Bourla—17 times in recent weeks, the government says. The effort paid off, and Netanyahu on Jan. 7 said Israel can expect enough doses for all citizens to get vaccinated by late March. “We will be the first country in the world to emerge from the coronavirus,” Netanyahu told reporters. In return for expedited supplies, he promised to provide Pfizer with data on outcomes to help the company better understand the vaccine’s performance and spot any unexpected side effects. Vaccine shipments from Moderna Inc. started arriving in early January, and AstraZeneca Plc will begin sending its version this spring.
Israel won plaudits for a strict early clampdown that largely contained the outbreak, but in May the government let down its guard, with schools reopening and Netanyahu urging citizens to go out and “have fun.” New infections spiked, taking the air out of any economic recovery, and unemployment now tops 12%, triple the pre-pandemic level. The Bank of Israel forecasts that output will expand 6.3% this year with rapid vaccinations, but only 3.5% if the pace slows. “If Netanyahu is responsible for the vaccine, OK, he can take responsibility,” says Yoaz Hendel, a former Netanyahu aide who’s now a candidate for Sa’ar’s New Hope party. “At the same time, he has responsibility for the unemployment and political instability.”
The rapid rollout starkly contrasts with the situation for the millions of Palestinians living under Israeli control. Even as crowds jam public vaccination sites in Tel Aviv, West Bank areas such as Bethlehem, Nablus, and Gaza haven’t set a start date for shots. The Palestinians are awaiting doses from international donors after West Bank officials say they rejected a shipment from Israel as laughably small. “We are connected in this pandemic,” says Khaled Shiha, a senior official in the Palestinian Health Ministry. “They can’t consider themselves vaccinated without doing the same thing with the Palestinian population.”
Back in Israel, health-care providers have set up clinics and dispatched mobile vaccination units to every corner of the country. While the activity isn’t as frantic as it was in late December, the pace is likely to pick up again soon. Gili Regev, director of the infection prevention unit at Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv, says health-care workers who got the vaccine early in the campaign have shown increased levels of antibodies, and those who’ve fallen ill have typically had a milder case of Covid-19. “Within a week or two we’re going to really see the effects, probably in all of Israel,” Regev says. “It looks very promising and gives us a lot of optimism.”