A health worker gives a shot in the arm to a person with silver hair in front of a blue and white Israeli flag.

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As COVID-19 cases spike, Israel leads world in vaccine distribution

New cases have surged to a three-month high in Israel, but health authorities have still managed to vaccinate about 50% of the country’s high-risk population.

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An Israeli receives a coronavirus vaccine from medical staff at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Tel Aviv, Israel, Jan. 6, 2021. 

Credit:

Sebastian Scheiner/AP

For the past week, Israel has been vaccinating about 1.5% of its population daily — roughly 150,000 people per day — making it a world leader in vaccinating against COVID-19. 

New cases have surged to a three-month high, but health authorities have still managed to vaccinate about 50% of the country’s high-risk population.

Israeli Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said in a press conference on Sunday that the entire Israeli population could be vaccinated as soon as April.

“Within a time period of two to three months, we’ll be able to vaccinate the entire population that can be vaccinated,” Edelstein said.

He added that inoculating the general public is expected to begin by next month.

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“I estimate that by late March-early April most of those who so desire will be able to be vaccinated and then we can begin a large-scale opening of the economy and cultural activities."

Yuli Edelstein, health minister, Israel

Israel is moving so fast, they’re already planning for the day after the pandemic ends.

“I estimate that by late March, early April most of those who so desire will be able to be vaccinated and then we can begin a large-scale opening of the economy and cultural activities,” Edelstein said. 

On Monday, the Health Ministry unveiled its proposed “green passport” that will grant vaccinated Israelis permission to attend large gatherings and cultural events. 

“It’s actually really an amazing project where everybody took part in it,” said professor Gili Regev, director of the infectious disease unit at the Sheba Medical Center, Israel’s largest hospital. 

Regev said Israel’s successful campaign is largely thanks to its community-based health system. By law, all Israelis must be registered with one of the country’s four health care providers. In a small country of 9 million people, Regev said, the vaccination effort has been a huge success. 

“And I think also the compliance of the population,” Regev said. “There was a lot of PR about this, on how important it is and that this is really the only way to stop this pandemic. And I think all of those together is what actually made this happen. And yeah, it’s really exciting.”

Israel signed agreements with multiple drug companies for vaccines, but it’s distributing them faster than new shipments are arriving. By contrast, the situation next door in the Palestinian West Bank is very different. 

Outside the city of Nablus, Dr. Murad Shawer is the physician in charge at Hugo Chavez hospital, where the most complicated COVID-19 cases are sent from all across the West Bank. He and about 3 million other Palestinians living under Israeli military control will have to wait much longer for a vaccine.

“It’s very stressing [sic] for me and for all the personnel,” Shawer said. “We have now crossing [sic] the peak of the disease and it will continue during the next three months at least.”

Numbers of new cases are starting to go down, Shawer said, and he believes the vaccine will have an impact.

“I think [the] vaccine can help to get our target, but now I don’t know how much time we have to wait to get this vaccine,” Shawer said. 

So far, the cash-strapped Palestinian National Authority hasn’t signed a single deal with any of the vaccine manufacturers. But Palestinian officials say it’s a top priority.

“We are in contact with Pfizer, with Sputnik-5, with AstraZeneca, with all the manufacturers,” said Dr. Ali Abed Rabbo, director-general of the Palestinian Health Ministry. “The only one signed is with the COVAX facility that will provide 20% of the Palestinian population.”

COVAX is the initiative co-led by the World Health Organization to ensure a more equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines around the world. 

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"I think that there is a responsibility of Israel, who is, under international law, the occupying force, to provide all these vaccines and all the needs of the people in the occupied territory.”

Dr. Ali Abed Rabbo, director-general, Palestinian Health Ministry

Rabbo hopes the first vaccines will arrive next month, but he doesn’t seem too optimistic about that timeframe. He said there is a dialogue with Israel to facilitate the entry of the vaccines once they arrive.

“But I think that there is a responsibility of Israel, who is, under international law, the occupying force, to provide all these vaccines and all the needs of the people in the occupied territory.”

In Israel, a debate continues about its legal responsibility toward Palestinians during the pandemic. But what about the moral question?

Regev, from Sheba hospital, said that Israel should be doing more to help get vaccines to the Palestinians. 

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“Definitely I think we should,” she said. “There is the Israeli vaccine which is also being developed and some people said, ‘Well, why do we need to develop it if we have enough vaccines?’ Obviously, we need to develop it because the world needs vaccines. I think everybody should put an effort in developing the vaccines and distributing them, and yeah, and vaccinating all of the populations in need.”

Israel’s health minister recently said that the government’s first obligation was to its own citizens. As for the Palestinians, he said, “If, God willing, there will be a situation where we can say we are in a position to help others, no doubt it will be done.”

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