Vaccine Race

‘Have you had it?’, this is the question that has buzzed around Jerusalem over the past few weeks since Israel began its mass vaccination scheme a month ago.

Israel has made headlines around the world for the speed and efficiency with which it is rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine. Official statistics from the Ministry of Health show that over 2.5 million people have already been vaccinated with a million people having received both doses. This is nearly a third of the 9.3 million population and a much higher percentage of the over 16 population that are eligible to receive the vaccine.

In Israel all over 40s can now book an appointment to get the vaccine and over the weekend the scheme was extended to 17-18 year olds. Last weekend was slightly chaotic with lots of people turning up at vaccination centres, some to be granted it and others to be turned away – often within the same age range and even the same family. These issues seem to have been ironed out however and up to 200,000 people are now being vaccinated each day. The plan is to complete the programme of vaccinating the entire population by the end of February. This puts Israel firmly at the front of the global vaccine race. How has Israel been able to achieve this when others may be waiting many months to get the first shot?

The first reason is that Israel is a highly militarised state with a fully digitalised health service. In short, they hold a lot of data on everyone. This has made it easy for people to be contacted to book appointments and to immediately be offered their follow-up second jab three weeks later. The critical benefit of the data however, and the real reason for the speed of the rollout, is that Israel was able to strike a deal with Pfizer on 6 January to exchange personal data on a mass scale for a guaranteed supply of the vaccine.

The Pfizer vaccine was reportedly tested on 40,000 people before roll-out began and here was a country of nine million offering to essentially undertake a nationwide clinical trial. The only difference being that the individuals taking part in the trial do not get the option to consent to their data being shared.

After coming under pressure, Israel published a redacted version of the agreement which failed to clarify the specifics of the data that will be shared and the exact ways in which it will be used. This has raised ethical concerns for many and would not have met the strict regulations around data protection in many other countries.

It feels unethical but is it justified? I personally feel at this time in history, that the benefits for the advancement of science outweigh individual concerns. There are many unknowns about the efficacy of the vaccine and this large experiment could help to save lives around the world by identifying groups who shouldn’t receive the vaccine or where side-effects are more likely. On the other hand, it undeniably sets an unhelpful precedent for Israel to bypass important data protection legislation where it is convenient for it to do so.       

Another reason for Israel’s success, is that it has turned its back entirely on the five million Palestinians who remain under Israeli occupation. It normally falls to occupying powers to provide healthcare to all citizens: full stop. Yet the messy Oslo Accords of 1993 gives enough scope for Israel to deny its responsibilities, whilst simultaneously failing to hold them to account for the other requirements of the agreement. For the Palestinians it is the worst of both worlds and they have been stuck in a torturous limbo for nearly 30 years.

Many charities and international organisations such as Oxfam, Amnesty International and Medical Aid for Palestinians have formed a coalition to urge Israel to vaccinate Palestinians.  Meanwhile, Palestinians have no idea when the vaccine will come to them. It is reported that the Palestinian Authority has signed four contracts with different providers but to date no vaccines have been received.

Despite appearing to be ahead in the vaccine race, there are many big issues still to be resolved in Israel. These include:

  • What will Israel’s relationship with Palestine look like? The Israeli economy is highly dependent on Palestinian workers. Will permits continue to be granted for unvaccinated Palestinians? Will travel restrictions remain tight between Israeli and Palestinian areas?
  • Will Israel ever reach herd immunity? Israel has a high birth rate and a young population. The Pfizer vaccine has not been approved for under 16s and this may prevent enough people receiving the vaccine to ever reach herd immunity. It is also unknown how many people will refuse to take the vaccine. 
  • How will Israel’s intended Green Passport scheme work? This is a certificate that will be issued to people seven days after they have received their second vaccination. It will enable people to start attending cultural events and other social places but there is some suggestion that instead of granting freedoms it will be used to restrict the freedom of people who choose not to get vaccinated.
  • What will international travel look like for vaccinated people? Many are pinning their hopes on the vaccine as being a ticket to travel but will other countries take a uniform approach to this? Can a vaccinated person still transmit COVID even if they can’t develop it themselves? And what about children who may never get the vaccine? Will airlines set the policy or will each receiving country?

Getting the vaccine has seemed at times like the gold bullet that will make COVID-19 fade into the history books and life as we remember it to return. It is undoubtedly a huge step forward, but the next bumps on the road can now be seen and need careful navigation. As 2021 progresses, I hope that Israel will do what is right and support the occupied territories to vaccinate their populations.

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