Promising data in Israel's vaccine race

Israel has become the world's guinea pig, providing the largest case study of whether vaccines really could be the light at the end of the tunnel.

Its rapid and world-leading rollout of the Pfizer shot has provided new and crucial data, offering insights into how how effective vaccines are and if they could gain the upper hand in the pandemic.

Results are trickling in, and they are promising.

“Last week was the first week where we can say with confidence that we began to see the effect of the vaccines on the national pandemic numbers.”

Eran Segal is a data scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

He says the first groups to be inoculated are seeing a dramatic drop in illnesses.

“We see a bigger effect in cities where more people got vaccinated and these patterns we did not observe in the previous lockdown in October."

More than half of eligible Israelis - about 3.5 million people - have now been fully or partially vaccinated.

Among the first fully-vaccinated group there was a 53% reduction in new cases, a 39% decline in hospitalizations, and a 31% drop in severe illnesses from mid-January until Feb. 6, according to Segal.

While the news is positive, cases are still soaring thanks to the fast-spreading UK variant, which now makes up about 80% of new cases.

"In the race between the UK variant spreading and the vaccinations the end result is that we are seeing a kind of plateau in terms of the severely ill. But when we analyse the data further we see that this plateau is actually composed of a reduction in severely ill among the age group above the age of 60 and in increase in the group below the age of 60 so the net result is a plateau, even a 10% reduction in the overall severely ill cases this week compared to last week."

Israel is a small country with universal healthcare and advanced data capabilities, providing a unique opportunity for gathering insights.

Every detail was digitally tracked, down to in which arm the patient was jabbed and what vial it came from.

The big question of course is whether vaccines can end the pandemic altogether.

Crucially, there may be early signs that vaccines tamper transmission, as well as illness.

But Professor Michal Linial, from the Hebrew University, predicts it will become endemic and seasonal.

"The virus is not going anywhere, it will stay with us. But it will never stay with us the situation that we are now. It will become a very, you know, like ... endemic, nothing to write about, not so important, you know, one of many."

More will insights will be known in two weeks, as teams analyze younger groups of Israelis and branch out into other focus groups.