Four months into one of its worst Covid-19 outbreaks, Israel is seeing a sharp drop in new infections and severe illness, aided by its use of vaccine boosters, vaccine passports and mask mandates, scientists and health officials have said.
Israel was struck by its fourth coronavirus wave in June, fuelled by the fast-spreading Delta variant.
Rather than imposing new lockdown measures, the government bet on a third booster dose of the Pfizer vaccine for people age 12 and up, mandated face coverings and enforced use of a ‘Green Pass’ – proof of vaccination, recovery from the illness or a negative test for the virus – at restaurants and other venues, even for children.
Since peaking in early September, daily infections in Israel have fallen more than 80 per cent, with severe cases nearly halved.
“Day by day we are breaking the Delta wave,” prime minister Naftali Bennett said, crediting government policy for “close, smart and flexible management allowing life alongside coronavirus”.
Israel’s ‘Living with Covid’ strategy, which has not come without cost or controversy, has kept schools and the economy open.
The Israeli Health Ministry on Thursday presented the latest safety and effectiveness data from its booster campaign to a panel of advisers to the US Food and Drug Administration considering authorisation of additional booster shots.
The data show that among people over 60 – the first group to receive boosters – infections began declining rapidly about two weeks after third doses were administered, while still climbing among other age groups.
A data analysis by Doron Gazit and Yinon Ashkenazy of the Hebrew University’s Covid-19 monitoring team showed the virus’ reproduction rate – its ability to spread – began a sharp fall among each age group following the third shot.
Two months into the Delta wave, vaccinated people over the age of 60 made up more than half of severe Covid-19 cases. The majority were over 70 with health conditions that put them at higher risk.
Since administration of boosters, mostly unvaccinated, often younger, people are bearing the brunt of serious illness. They make up about 75 per cent of hospitalised patients in severe condition, while those vaccinated with two or three shots account for a quarter of such cases.
A third dose has so far been effective in curbing severe breakthrough cases among vaccinated people age 40 and up, according to the health ministry.
There is less available data for teens and young adults. However, the ministry said its findings so far show that a third dose has not increased the risk of myocarditis, a rare heart inflammation, in younger people.
Ran Balicer, who heads the Israeli government’s coronavirus expert advisory panel, said a combination of measures had curbed the Delta surge.
“These include the masks mandate, the Green Passes, the massive testing both with PCR testing and rapid antigen tests. But undoubtedly, the most important impactful factor in bringing down the Delta summer surge was the mass vaccination campaign with booster doses,” Balicer said.
In England, where boosters have been administered to roughly 5 per cent of the population, masks have largely been abandoned and vaccine passports are not mandatory, Covid-19 cases are on the rise.
Some scientists said Israel’s decision in late August to approve a third vaccine dose for young adults and teens was premature, lacking clear evidence of a benefit. They argue the focus should still be on convincing unvaccinated people to accept the shots.