Is the vaccine effective? Ask Israelis

Anshel Pfeffer debuts his new column with a look at Israel's world-leading vaccination drive


People receives a Covid-19 vaccine injection, at Clalit Covid-19 vaccination center in Jerusalem, on January 12, 2021. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** נגד נגיף הקורונה ארנה קורונה חיסון מורה חינוך כללית אזרחים חיסונים

If you’ve been anywhere on earth in the last couple of weeks, you’ll know by now that Israel is the world-leader in vaccinations, with nearly a quarter of its population having been jabbed in twenty-five days. But how will we know that the vaccine works?

The irony is that Israel’s breakneck vaccination drive has coincided with the peak, so far, of the third wave of Covid-19 infection, with daily rates reaching almost ten thousand new cases, Israel’s highest number.

Israel has agreed to share all its data with Pfizer, to see how it performs in the real world. Both the health ministry, which has all the numbers, and Pfizer, which has now seen the numbers, are keeping mum so far. No-one is prepared to proclaim victory before they know for sure. 

But one researcher, Professor Eran Segal, the principal investigator of the Weizmann Institute’s Segal Lab, is convinced that this weekend we’ll have the answer.

“Going by the number of Israelis vaccinated so far and the time it’s supposed to take for the vaccine to take effect, we’re nearly at the money-time.” Segal told me on Tuesday.

“We should see the proportion of serious cases developing among those over-sixty by the end of this week. It’s the moment of truth.”

Professor Segal has become the “numbers guy” of this pandemic in Israeli media, analysing the figures and accurately forecasting, so far, its main trends. He’s working independently, basing his research on publicly available data and the answers to internet questionnaires he’s developed.

He said: “I’m not working with the government or Pfizer, they have their own statisticians. My prediction is based on what Pfizer has published so far regarding the efficacy of their vaccine. This weekend, we’ll finally know if they were right.”

If the proportion of over-60s being hospitalised for serious Covid-related complications doesn’t begin to dip in the next few days, serious questions will be asked. If it does, Israel can start the countdown to its emergence from the plague and began listing its casualties.

Goodbye, Benny

Benny Gantz didn’t catch Covid-19, though he had a few close calls which sent him in to quarantine. But from a political perspective, he is Israel’s biggest coronavirus casualty. He began the pandemic as the leader of the largest party in the Knesset and Israel’s prospective prime minister. Even after the March election, where Likud overtook Blue and White, he still had more MKs endorsing him than Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Ten months later, as he held a “dramatic” press conference, he was a beaten man — even without the awful wardrobe and stage choices - tieless black shirt, black jacket, black background and a black face-mask which he removed before speaking. The flag of Israel lent a sole ironic touch of colour. He looked cadaverous. It wasn’t a dramatic event. He was too crumpled and morose to provide any drama, but there were a couple of firsts.

For the first time, he admitted he had made a mistake by joining Mr Netanyahu’s coalition in April and putting his trust in a partnership with the prime minister. 

And for the first time he acknowledged that he no longer had a chance of leading a party that would challenge Mr Netanyahu in the next election. He was offering to join Blue and White with any of the other centre-left parties so they could beat Mr Netanyahu together. He didn’t say it in so many words but he had accepted the fact that in any merged list he would no longer be number one.

Mr Gantz finally admits his mistake but he continues to use the same worn-out excuse he’s given for doing so ever since he signed the coalition agreement, Blue and White’s death warrant. “I volunteered to get under the stretcher,” he said for the hundredth time, using an old military simile. But it’s not an apt image. Mr Gantz may have spent most of his life in the IDF but his days a young paratrooper carrying stretchers on long night-time training marches for dozens of miles are far behind him.

There’s a very precise choreography to the IDF’s stretcher marches. Four troopers carry the stretcher at shoulder-height. Every two minutes, the uncomfortable soldier strapped on top raises his hand and in mid-stride, six men — a fresh couple coming from behind, the couple holding the rear handles and the couple at front - all change places.

Mr Gantz portrayed his getting under the stretcher as an act of individual altruism. But if an individual were to try and get under a stretcher he’d send it tumbling. It’s all about teamwork and perfect coordination with your partner and the other couples. Mr Gantz abandoned Yair Lapid and Moshe Yaalon, half the leadership team which, despite a harrowing fourteen months of campaigning over three elections, carried Blue and White with him. And he left them for Mr Netanyahu, a partner who would never coordinate with him. That was his mistake. As a result, no-one yet is rushing to take him up on his offer to join forces.

There are three weeks left until the deadline to file candidates lists for the 23 March election. Given the parlous state of most of the centre-left parties (at least ten at the last count), Mr Gantz may yet find partners but he will never again be trusted to lead.

Farewell, Donald

Meanwhile, another partnership ended this week.

Donald Trump is a notorious light-sleeper and early riser. In his waking hours he is glued to cable television and Twitter (even now he is blocked from tweeting). Those wary of incurring his wrath must time their movements with care: 9AM in Jerusalem, 2AM in Washington. 

Benjamin Netanyahu chose that time to finally congratulate Joe Biden two months ago on his winning the election. It was also the hour on Tuesday when he changed the banner of his @netanyahu Twitter account (with his 1.8M followers). Gone was the photograph of him and Trump. Instead the banner was of Mr Netanyahu with another 74 year-old man — his family GP, Dr Tzvi Berkovitz.

It was a moment that encapsulated a pivotal shift in Mr Netanyahu’s campaign strategy. In the previous three elections of 2019-20, President Trump featured heavily in Likud’s propaganda. Israel was covered in posters bearing the photographs of the two leaders with the slogan “Netanyahu, a different league.” In his rallies, Mr Netanyahu spoke at length on how his uniquely close and personal relationship with the president empowered Israel.

This campaign is all about the man whose unique international connections enabled Israel to receive millions of vaccines early and become the first country to “return to life.” 

But President Trump won’t feature in those connections. 

From the moment President Biden wakes up from his inauguration celebrations and sits behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office on 21 January he will have the power to upset Mr Netanyahu’s campaign. It all depends on how soon he decides to re-engage with the Iranian regime and rejoin the nuclear agreement, and whether he refuses Mr Netanyahu’s entreaties for an early meeting before the election. 

If the PM is seen as having lost his influence in DC, where the Democrats now control both houses of Congress, it could do his reelection campaign the kind of damage that millions of vaccines will not be sufficient to fix.

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