Israel Vaccinates More Than 10% of Its Population in Two Weeks

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Israel Vaccinates More Than 10% of Its Population in Two Weeks

A health-care worker gave a Covid-19 vaccine to a woman at Clalit Health Services in Tel Aviv on Sunday.

Photo: jack guez/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

TEL AVIV—Israel has inoculated nearly half of its most at-risk citizens and more than 10% of the population in two weeks as authorities accelerate a Covid-19 vaccination drive after early hiccups had led to wasted shots.

The small country—with roughly nine million people, about the same as New York City—now aims to immunize the majority of its people by early spring. Israel’s vaccination campaign is relatively simple compared with the mass mobilizations needed by countries with many more people and a greater sweep of geography.

Israel started with vaccinating its health-care workers and those over the age of 60 on Dec. 20 after receiving early shipments of Pfizer Inc.’s vaccine. By Saturday, it had administered 12.59 doses per 100 of its people, according to the Oxford University-based research group Our World In Data. That rate of inoculation is nearly four times quicker than the second-fastest nation, the tiny Arab Gulf state of Bahrain.

“The health system is proving itself,” said Health Minister Yuli Edelstein in an interview Thursday with The Wall Street Journal. Israel boasts of a technologically advanced health-care system to which everyone in the country is registered by law.

The rollout offers insights into how authorities are attempting to maximize the campaign’s coverage for the most vulnerable while minimizing wastage of doses, which must be kept extraordinarily cold to keep them from going bad.

After Israel was forced to dump hundreds of doses as fewer-than-expected people turned up to be inoculated, authorities cut back on the number of vials being dispatched to vaccination centers and allowed anyone willing to get the shot to jump the queue. Those steps allowed Israel to quickly cut wastage and reach out to more people, officials say.

Pfizer’s vaccine, made with partner BioNTech SE, must be administered within a five-day window after it leaves the main storage center, and six hours once out of a fridge, according to Israeli authorities, who say they are following Pfizer’s rules.

To cope with that short shelf life and help authorities reach less populated and isolated areas, Israel began splitting some of Pfizer’s 1,000-dose packages into smaller consignments of a few hundred each. The system, in which workers repackage the vials in workstations within massive freezers, was approved by Pfizer before being implemented, Mr. Edelstein said.

Israel also enacted a policy that allows vaccine centers facing soon-to-be wasted surplus to inoculate anyone who shows up. This has led to scenes around the country of citizens both young and middle-aged queuing up at vaccine centers, hoping to get an early shot.

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But by doing this, Israel also risks running out of its current supply of vaccines before its most vulnerable are fully inoculated. Israel has purchased 8 million doses from Pfizer, 6 million from Moderna and 10 million from AstraZeneca, but it isn’t clear when the shipments will arrive. Vaccine makers say it takes two doses to be fully effective.

Authorities by mid-January will also stop vaccinating new patients for a two-week period. The current plan is that those already vaccinated will begin receiving their second doses during this break.

Israel’s health minister defended the current plan as balancing the needs of the most at-risk with the rest of the country.

“I don’t think it would be the right decision…to give the vaccine only to those eligible—for example, 1,000 vaccines a day with zero mistakes—[but] then vaccinate the country in a year,” Mr. Edelstein said. “Meanwhile, we would have people who will die just because they didn’t get the vaccine on time.”

Israel is currently amid its third national lockdown to contain a resurgence in Covid-19 cases—one that health officials say isn’t working because there are too many exceptions.

The decision to impose the lockdown in late December came as new daily infection rates reported in Israel reached more than 3,000. They are now averaging more than 5,000 daily, with 50,299 active cases in total.

In total, 3,391 Israelis have died from the virus, with a mortality rate of 0.8%. Fatalities have steadily increased since the start of December.

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