The world is currently in a race against time. The goal is to administer Covid-19 vaccines as quickly and efficiently as possible to curb the spread of the coronavirus before the new mutations can spread. One country that is ahead of the curve with its vaccination program is Israel. Currently, one in three Israelis has already received at least one dose of the vaccine, a far higher fraction than anywhere else in the world.
This means that we now have ‘real world’ evidence of the Pfizer vaccine's efficacy, and the results are encouraging. The latest study published by Professor Dvir Ram, a biologist at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, suggests that the vaccine is between 66-85 percent effective at preventing infections and 87-96 percent effective at preventing severe forms of Covid-19. These results aren’t far off from Pfizer’s own phase three trial results.
This news is a sign of hope after a few difficult months. The new study looked at national health statistics for people in the age range of 60 and older, who received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine first due to a higher risk of getting a severe form of the disease. Six weeks into the vaccination program, when the majority of people in that age group were already vaccinated, data showed that the number of new Covid-19 cases dropped by 41 percent compared to three weeks earlier. That group also experienced a 31 percent drop in hospitalizations and a drop of 24 percent in severely ill patients.
What makes this study all the more accurate is the fact that the authors were able to isolate other contributing factors, such as a lockdown, that also reduce the number of infections. The researchers found that even when taking those factors into consideration, the vaccines still had a significant impact.
Exactly how big this impact will be on a worldwide scale remains to be determined, but experts are optimistic. “I find this pretty persuasive that we are seeing actual effects of population-level vaccination,” said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who was not involved with the Israeli study.
That being said, some experts also warn that these positive results do not mean that people can let their guard down just yet. There are a number of questions that the Weizmann Institute study wasn’t able to answer. It’s not clear, for example, what the decline in cases, severe cases, and hospitalizations will be in the long term. In the clinical trial on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, researchers observed the first signs of protection roughly 10 days after the first dose.
It is also likely that the impact was slower in Israel because the vaccination program was directed primarily at older people, whose immune systems may have taken longer to mount a defense. “The message to the world is even if you are vaccinating at a crazy rate like Israel, even so, you will have to have patience,” said Hagai Rossman, a co-author of the Weizmann study. “There is no magic wand.”
Bearing all the information in mind, experts like Dr. Hanage still believe that other countries should be encouraged by Israel’s results. Overall, they do point a way out of the pandemic. Patience seems to be the keyword.
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