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World’s most vaccinated nation struggles with new virus variant

With more than 30% of its population vaccinated, Israel leads the fight against COVID-19. Yet the emergence of more infectious variants is overwhelming its hospitals, showing the long road ahead for the rest of the world.

After inoculating 82% of Israelis aged 60 and more, going into a nearly month-long lockdown and shutting down the national airport this week, Israel is indicating the end of the tunnel may be further away. That dents hopes for a rapid vaccine-driven global recovery after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pledge at Davos to make Israel a test case for how quickly Covid shots can help reopen economies.

“We see a wave of infection that refuses to decline, apparently because of the mutation,” Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said at a press conference on Thursday.

As the European Union fights to get adequate supplies of vaccines and the U.S. pushes to get more shots into arms, the Israeli situation is evidence of the difficulty of fighting a virus whose ability to quickly mutate keeps it a step ahead of efforts to contain it.

The so-called British variant, 50% more infectious and possibly more virulent than the original virus, is to blame for the failure so far of the vaccination campaign and the lockdown to curb the spread, Israeli health ministry officials said.

While the rate of infections in Israel has declined slightly to about 9% and people seriously or critically ill has stabilized at about 1,100, the number of patients on respirators has hit a record, Corona Commissioner Nachman Ash has said. More than 4,600 people in Israel have died from the virus, and more than 7,600 people are being diagnosed with it daily.

Although the vaccine is believed to work against the British variant, the mutation’s more contagious nature means higher infections and hence more hospitalizations. The health ministry’s main goal now is to bring down the numbers of the seriously ill who are overwhelming hospital wards and exhausting medical teams.

That said, the vaccine does seem to be working. People who have gone through the complete vaccination cycle made up 2% or less of those hospitalized, said Head of Public Health Sharon Alroy-Preis, adding that “they were definitely more protected.” Netanyahu has set a target of inoculating all Israelis older than 16 by the end of March.

More time is needed to draw conclusions about the efficacy of the vaccine, Ran Balicer, head of the COVID-19 National Experts Team, said on Ynet television, adding that it would likely take another 10 days before the country sees critical cases decline, allowing the economy to begin to return to normal.

“The faster we vaccinate and the faster the population goes to get vaccinated, the faster we can bring the spread under control,” said Hezi Levi, Health Ministry director. — Bloomberg

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