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Study: Mass Vaccination Will Curb Severe Disease but Will Not Stop COVID-19’s Spread

Study: Mass Vaccination Will Curb Severe Disease but Will Not Stop COVID-19’s Spread

Israeli Health Ministry report shows Pfizer vaccine only 39% effective against infection

New research published by Israel’s Health Ministry suggests that the country cannot rely on vaccinations alone to stem the spread of coronavirus.

The research indicates that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is significantly less effective than previous studies would suggest.

The findings, the data for which is not yet publicly available, were that Pfizer is now only 39% effective against coronavirus infection and 41% effective against developing symptoms as a result of infection.

This is a significant contradiction of earlier research, which appeared to show that the Pfizer vaccine was more than 90% effective at preventing infection.

The revelation comes as cases in Israel continue to rise, averaging 1,127 new infections per day, according to Reuters. Israel now stands at 13% of its peak infection rate, as recorded on January 16.

I don’t think that the vaccine has been developed to stop infectivity but to stop severe disease, which it does beautifully. As for infection, what we have to do is to keep social distancing

Professor Ronen Alon, an expert immunologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, told The Media Line, “It’s not a surprise because, to start with, vaccination, especially respiratory vaccinations, that are intramuscular, cannot protect from infection.”

Alon said this was the case with any vaccine for respiratory illnesses, since the upper airways, such as the nasal cavity and trachea, are never fully protected.

He went on to posit that large proportions of the public are confused as to what the vaccine is for. “I don’t think that the vaccine has been developed to stop infectivity but to stop severe disease, which it does beautifully. As for infection, what we have to do is to keep social distancing.”

This, it appears, is the same conclusion reached by Naftali Bennett’s government. In a statement to the press released on July 22, the Prime Minister’s Office said that the “corona cabinet” had approved a number of measures to prevent further infections.

The cabinet will attempt to reimplement both the Green Badge plan and a strategy for handling international travel. The plan includes requiring attendees to events with over 100 people to have been vaccinated, recovered, possess a recent negative test, or be under 12 years of age. According to the government press release, “The Green Badge will apply to culture and sports events, gyms, restaurants and dining rooms, conferences, tourist attractions and houses of worship.” The corona cabinet met on Sunday, July 25, and approved the plan. If approved by the government, it will go into effect from Thursday, July 29.

These extra measures are in addition to certain restrictions that have already been reinstated, including the wearing of masks indoors and tighter entry requirements for foreign nationals and Israelis returning from abroad.

Alon’s clarification that the vaccine is intended to prevent severe disease, rather than stop infectivity, is supported by the Health Ministry report, which concluded that the Pfizer shot is 91.4% effective at averting serious illness.

Another important factor for the government when considering further restrictions is the extent to which the economy will be affected. Reuters revealed that COVID-induced restrictions caused a 2.4% contraction in the size of Israel’s economy during 2020. Indeed, the report noted that this was the first year that the Israeli economy has declined since 2002, and the worst economic downturn since the founding of the state in 1948.

Naomi Feldman, professor of economics at Hebrew University, told The Media Line, “I think one of the benefits to economic policy now versus where we were in March of 2020, is that we have a better understanding of the cost-benefit analysis of things that we do. So I think the government understands the cost of shutting things down and is much more hesitant to do things like that currently.”

I think the government understands the cost of shutting things down and is much more hesitant to do things like that currently

Feldman pointed to the shift in governmental outlook since the start of the pandemic, from believing that the virus would disappear if lockdowns were effectively implemented to accepting that we have to adapt to the long-term presence of the novel coronavirus. “And so, the question is to what extent do we learn to live with it, live with some sort of degree of the virus going through society without having to resort to these lockdowns. So, it’s not only the economic aspect,” she said.

Nevertheless, the Weizmann Institute’s Professor Alon pointed to several ways in which the situation could be immediately improved by curbing certain misguided practices. He referred to “the situation in the airports, which is ridiculous,” clarifying that “most people that get back, they get tested on the spot and then if it comes out negative, they are released, and I think that they should, regardless of where they landed, all be in isolation for at least four days. Because it’s meaningless. You know, to get a test a few days before the flight, it’s OK. Right after the flight, it’s premature because people get infected on the way.”

Alon stressed the importance of combining restrictive practices rather than relying solely on the vaccine to stop the spread. While each measure can contribute to preventing the spread, the combination of making sure people don’t gather in large numbers; ensuring that if they do, they are vaccinated; increasing the rate of vaccination; and improving monitoring at the airport, is the only viable solution. He noted that the R number – the average number of people that one infected person will pass on the virus to – is currently 1.4; it must be reduced to less than 1 for the infection rate to fall.

“If, ideally, everybody would be vaccinated. I mean, 100% vaccination, especially among the elderly. Then I think that we could go along even with a high R. Just as in any epidemic. If you have a flu epidemic, we always have safe conditions in which the R is higher than 1, and it’s temporary,” he said.

Every citizen over age 12 who doesn’t have a medical reason not to must go get vaccinated

In a televised address to the nation, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has said as much, stating that “every citizen over age 12 who doesn’t have a medical reason not to must go get vaccinated.”

“One million Israelis are refusing to get vaccinated,” he lamented. “They are endangering the entire population; they are endangering the other 8 million citizens in the country.”

Aron Rosenthal is a student at the University of Edinburgh and an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program.

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