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Vaccines versus variants: Israel's exit from pandemic hangs in balance

Israel’s plan to parlay its COVID-19 vaccination drive into an exit from the pandemic next month hangs in the balance as new variants of the virus have spurred an increase in infections, a senior official said on Wednesday, 27th January. 

Highly infectious foreign variants are currently flooding Israeli hospitals with serious cases and the newly developed vaccines have yet to be proven fully effective against them, Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch said.

Israel currently leads the world on per capita vaccinations, having inoculated about 30% of its population of nine million with at least one dose.

“We are in a war with very low intelligence (about the enemy),” Kisch, a former fighter pilot, told Reuters. “That means that things are changing as we go. The enemy is using different tactics and different methods that we are not fully aware of.”

Israel began vaccinating high-risk groups on Dec. 19 in what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu predicted would provide them with full protection by the end of this month and enable the economy to begin reopening in February.

But despite expanded eligibility criteria for the Pfizer Inc. vaccines and the imposition of a third national lockdown, infections, and deaths are surging.

“We’re in an arms race - except it’s not an arms race, it’s a race between vaccination and mutation,” Netanyahu said on Wednesday at a virtual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

Governments worldwide “should probably expect the companies that are producing the vaccines at this point to modify their vaccines to accommodate the mutations that they don’t cover now,” said Netanyahu, who is up for re-election on March 23.