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Sensemaker: Israel and Covid

Sensemaker: Israel and Covid

Friday 20 August 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • Poison algae and gas from abandoned gold mines are among the possible killers of a British hiker, his family and his dog, found dead on a mountain trail in California.
  • The foreign secretary Dominic Raab rejected calls to quit after failing to take an urgent phone call to help translators flee Afghanistan while on holiday in Crete.
  • The subscription site OnlyFans, which tens of thousands of sex workers depend on for their income, is banning adult material after pressure from financial partners. 

Israel and Covid

Last May, as Israeli citizens enjoyed freedom without restrictions, government advisor Ran Balicer issued a warning: “The pandemic is not yet over.” Four months later his advice has proved prescient. Once a beacon of hope for governments vying to catch up on vaccinations, Israel is facing a fourth wave of Covid infections. In particular, an increase in hospitalisations in Israel’s over-60s has cast doubt over the long-term protection given by the vaccine – as well as its ability to combat the Delta strain.

Good start. After agreeing to share data with Pfizer in exchange for vaccine doses, Israel became the first country to launch a mass inoculation drive. 80 per cent of its adult population were fully vaccinated by April this year. Cases dropped steadily, and between May and July the country was averaging zero Covid deaths a day. 

It didn’t last. Cases began to rise sharply in July, driven by the more infectious Delta variant. Israel is now reporting an average of 6,827 new cases a day. That’s significant: it represents 80 per cent of the case average during the last peak on 16 January. As cases rise, so do hospitalisations. If they go on up at a similar rate, health officials fear that 5,000 people will need hospital beds come September – or twice the current hospital capacity. Deaths are rising too, but more slowly. There were 19 yesterday.

Why are cases rising? There are two leading theories: a) that vaccines are less effective against the Delta variant and b) that vaccine immunity wanes over time. There is truth to both explanations.

  • Several studies have shown that the vaccine provides less protection against Delta. A new paper by Oxford University found that, for cases with a high viral load, Pfizer’s protection against symptomatic infection dropped from 94 per cent for the Alpha variant to 84 per cent for Delta. For AstraZeneca, those figures were 86 per cent and 70 per cent respectively. 
  • Vaccine immunity is also starting to wane. Israeli data suggests that protection starts to dip between six and eight months after the full vaccination – though exact efficacy figures remain contested. The Oxford study found that Pfizer’s protection against symptomatic infection against the Delta variant dropped by ten percentage points in three months. AstraZeneca’s reduction was smaller, which suggests that it may create longer-lasting immunity in the long run.

Israel has responded with booster jabs. As well as tightening restrictions across the country, the government has distributed a third shot of the vaccine to more than a million over-50s in just over two weeks. It will continue the roll-out for all those double jabbed at least five months ago.

What we know. Vaccines still work. Much concern has centred on the fact that 60 per cent of current hospitalisations in Israel are among the double-vaxxed. This figure is true, but it comes with many caveats. Eighty per cent of the adult population is fully vaccinated, and those vaccinated tend to be older and therefore more susceptible to serious illness. When the hospitalisations figure is adjusted for population counts and vaccination rates, it shows that the unvaccinated are 3.1 times more likely to become severely ill from Covid. 

What we don’t know. The data from Israel is limited. The population exclusively received the Pfizer jab, and others may provide immunity for longer. They may also be more effective against Delta and other variants. There are also questions about the time between doses: some scientists suggest shorter intervals between jabs lead to shorter-term immunisation

We also don’t know whether boosters will be enough to save lives and avoid further economic disruption, or whether they will protect individuals from future variants. In the US, Biden’s administration has advised citizens to get a booster shot eight months after becoming fully inoculated, partly as a response to the Israeli data. Germany and the UK are pondering similar measures in spite of the WHO’s pleas for rich countries to help poor ones get first doses first. Israel may be the canary in a very expensive and divisive coal mine.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Afghanistan today, Taiwan tomorrow?
A question raised by America’s exit from Afghanistan: would the US abandon Taiwan rather than go to war over it with China? Taiwan’s premier, Su Tseng-chang, rejected comparisons between Afghanistan and the democratically elected government in Taipei, but he said the lesson from the former was that “only if you help yourself can others help you”. Su added that the need to concentrate American forces in the Asia-Pacific to defend against China is one reason for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan; that Taiwan, as a hub of microprocessing hardware 100 miles from the Chinese mainland, is important for US national security; and that, having spent quarter of a century building its own democracy without the domestic need for American forces, Taiwan is a case apart from Afghanistan. All true, but the fact the Taiwan question is even being asked is worrying.


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Crisis denial
Richard Sackler, former president of Purdue Pharma, denied any responsibility for the American opioid crisis in a federal bankruptcy hearing. Purdue and the Sackler family have faced thousands of lawsuits over deaths caused by their flagship opioid painkiller, OxyContin. Sackler reportedly told his sales team at the launch of OxyContin in 1996 that he expected “a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition”. During the hearing, Sackler said he didn’t know how many people had died from opioid use, but the headline figures are well known: from 1999 to 2017, almost 218,000 people in the United States died from overdoses related to prescription opioids. A decision on the proposed bankruptcy settlement is expected later next week. If it goes through, the Sackler family would give up ownership of Purdue Pharma and contribute $4.5 billion in cash, but no family member would go to prison.  


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

The price of beauty
Animal testing of chemicals exclusively for cosmetic products has been banned in the UK since 1998 unless “absolutely necessary”, but new research claims hundreds of cosmetics sold in the UK and Europe have been tested on animals anyway. Ingredients for moisturisers, lipsticks, hair conditioner were tested on mice and rabbits in more than 100 illegal experiments. The findings put a recent letter to the home secretary, sent by more than 70 companies, in a new light. Avon, Waitrose, Unilever and others warned Priti Patel against adopting a decision by the European Chemicals Agency that made animal testing necessary for two chemicals used in suncream in order to meet rules on worker safety. They’re pushing back against the return of animal testing – but it already happens more often than thought.


New things technology, science, engineering

Chips are down
Toyota, the world’s biggest carmaker, is planning to cut global production by 40 per cent in September because of the shortage of microchips. Most of the cuts will affect factories in Asia and the US. Unlike its rivals, Toyota had managed to avoid cutting output by extending summer shutdowns by a week in France, the Czech Republic and Turkey. The company also benefited from having built a larger stockpile of chips under a business continuity plan adopted after Japan’s 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster. The reason for the forthcoming cut in output is the resurgence of Covid cases across Asia, which has hit supply chains. A wide range of businesses have been affected by the chip shortage, including small appliance manufacturers. Chipmaker Intel’s Pat Gelsinger predicts that the shortage will be worse in the second half of 2021 and that it will take “a year or two” for supplies to be back to normal.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Pandemic pay
Bosses at Britain’s biggest publicly listed companies earned 86 times more than the average worker in 2020, according to a new report from the High Pay Centre. The average executive salary – £2.69 million – was down 17 per cent compared with the previous year. Some of this restraint has been driven by shareholders, but executives still massively out-earn their colleagues; even at the nine FTSE 100 companies that participated in the furlough scheme earlier this year, the average executive salary was £2.39 million. Not all FTSE bosses are seeing cuts to their pay either. Earlier this year, a Tortoise report found that 38 FTSE 100 companies awarded larger pay packages to their CEOs during the pandemic. AstraZeneca’s Pascal Soriot was the biggest earner, on £15.45 million in 2020 after the drug company gained global recognition thanks to its vaccine efforts. This was despite the fact that AstraZeneca accumulated almost $50 million in losses in 2021 alone. Other big earners were Brian Cassin of Experian, at £10.3 million, and Albert Manifold of CRH, a building materials group, at £9.92 million.

Thanks for reading and do share this around.

Patricia Clarke
@paticlarke

Additional reporting by Ellen Halliday, Phoebe Davis and Sophia Sun.

Photographs by Getty Images


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