“Certificate not found.” The computer system of the Israeli Ministry of Health is unrelenting: no third vaccination, then no corona pass. Just a few months ago, ‘fully vaccinated’ meant that you had two vaccinations against Covid-19, now you won’t get anywhere without the third so-called ‘booster shot’.
While the Netherlands and the rest of Europe have just started cautiously offering a third vaccination to vulnerable groups, in Israel everyone who wanted it has already had a third shot in the arm. This summer the ‘booster’ became available. First for people over sixty, almost immediately afterwards for all residents of twelve years and older. Just like now in Europe, this was preceded by a rapid increase in the corona figures. Not only had the infectious Delta variant reached Israel, the effectiveness of the vaccines also appeared to decrease after a few months. Israel was one of the first countries to find out – after all, they had also started vaccinating earlier than the rest.
Also read: Forerunner Israel notices that vaccines are less effective after a few months
That sudden “booster campaign” was more of a political than a medical decision at the time. After successive years with Prime Minister Netanyahu at the head of the government, a new cabinet had just taken office. September was just around the corner, a month full of holidays with the accompanying family celebrations, religious gatherings and other events, where many people would gather. The new Prime Minister Bennett had publicly grounded the previous cabinet’s corona policy several times. He wanted at all costs to avoid having to announce a lockdown for the holidays, like his maligned predecessor. The booster shots were supposed to quickly reduce the number of cases so that society could continue to function. It was an educated guess; hardly any figures were known about the effect of an extra vaccination. But it worked out well for Bennett. Three weeks after the new vaccination campaign started, the number of infections among vaccinated people began to fall drastically.
Surprise among experts
Israeli experts are now watching the debate in Europe with amazement. What is happening in Europe now is similar to what Israel experienced months ago. “Israel is about three months ahead of the rest of the world,” Professor Eyal Leshem of Sheba Medical Center told NRC. “So if there was an increase in the number of infections that broke through the vaccine in Israel in July, other countries might have thought: let’s prepare for that.” He notes that contamination figures in different countries cannot be compared one-to-one.
In Israel, there has been hardly any ethical or medical debate about the third shot and whether it should be limited to certain vulnerable groups. According to figures from the Israeli health ministry, more than four million people in Israel have received their third shot; about 950 thousand people have had their second, but not their third vaccination. The Israeli government is also not afraid of some extra pressure to convince doubters. The third shot is a condition for Israelis over 16 to access cafes, restaurants and events, although submitting a negative test result also remains an option. The original vaccination certificate, which would be valid for anyone with two Covid-19 vaccinations until the end of December this year, was declared invalid overnight. Tourists also have to believe it, although few countries give a booster shot. Since 1 November, tourists are allowed again under certain conditions. One is that their last vaccination was no more than six months ago.
The original vaccination certificate was invalidated overnight
Also other measures
In addition to the booster shots, other measures remain in force in Israel. For example, face masks are still mandatory in public transport, in shops and in public buildings. The corona pass has already been withdrawn for a number of places, such as swimming pools and events with limited, fixed seats.
The United States followed Israel’s lead late last week and offered all adults the third shot. At the time of its introduction in Israel, the US drug regulator FDA had recommended the additional vaccination only for vulnerable groups. The new advice is based in part on research from Israel, which shows that a third vaccination greatly increases protection against infection and against serious disease. Israel also recommends the shot from this week for young people between the ages of twelve and sixteen. It is not clear whether a third vaccination will also become a condition for them to receive a corona certificate.
Despite the success of the booster shots, Israel is not yet rid of the dreaded virus. In recent days, the reproduction number – the average number of people who infect a person who tested positive – rose above 1 for the first time in months. Prime Minister Bennett warned this week of a “child wave” of infections. Nearly half of the nearly four thousand new infections last week were found among children under the age of twelve. On Tuesday, Israel, like the US, will begin a vaccination campaign among five to 11-year-olds. The first tubes of Pfizer for children, about a third of an adult dose, arrived in the country on Sunday.
Prime Minister Bennett warned this week of a “children’s wave” of infections
The greatest risk group remains the people who have not been vaccinated at all. In Israel that is about 15 percent of the population over the age of twelve. According to the health ministry, unvaccinated people make up the vast majority of new cases, as well as critically ill Covid patients. Professor Leshem expects that new outbreaks and high infection rates will not disappear, “but the danger that the health care system will be overrun or that we will have to go back to full lockdown has hopefully been removed because the majority of the population has been vaccinated.”
Also read the report from Israel: ‘My daughter will drop out of school if Israel wants to test weekly’
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad of 23 November 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of November 23, 2021