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Sensemaker audio

Israel – vaccine battleground

Israel – vaccine battleground

Israel was best in the world at vaccinating its people against Covid. Now, as the country opens up, sceptics are claiming that what’s happening in Israel means vaccines aren’t very effective. They’re wrong.


Hi, I’m Nimo – and this is Sensemaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, how Israel became Exhibit A for people who want to claim the Covid vaccines don’t work. 


“A day of hope and celebration in Israel as people here receive the first doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.”

News report

When the global vaccine roll-out began, Israel was the belle of the ball.

Within a month more than a quarter of its population had got their first dose of the Covid vaccine. Now it’s at around 60 per cent of the whole country, and about 85 per cent of adults.

It became a real-life “show and tell” for how good the vaccine was. 

A study of 1.2 million people in Israel back in February found that people who’d been vaccinated were 94 per cent less likely to get Covid with symptoms.

And the number of cases plummeted from around 10,000 cases a day at the start of the year, to just double figures last month.

Israel’s success seemed as if it was going to pull the rug from under vaccine sceptics. 

But something’s changed – a new variant has come along, the Delta variant. And some of the sceptics think they might be proved right after all. 

They’ve got a new focus: something called breakthrough cases.

“Now concerns are growing in Israel after some fully vaccinated adults got infected with the coronavirus.”

News report

So, breakthrough cases are the ones where people who’ve been vaccinated catch Covid anyway. And there’ve been some pretty startling takes – not least from a cardiologist in the US.

“The Delta variant really is not responsive at all, or protected at all by the vaccines… In Israel, the estimate right now from the Israel health authorities that the vaccine efficacy rate is only about 60 to 70 percent… There is no reason right now, no clinical reason to go get vaccinated.”

Cardiologist on Fox News

Now, that’s a really big claim. Definitely not one to take at face value. 

So here’s my question: what does Israel’s data show us?

And should it make us worry about how good the Covid vaccines actually are?

“Alright, and let’s now shift our attention to some pretty concerning news that’s coming from Israel and what is being said to be a major blow to the efficacy claims of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine. Over 12,000 people who were inoculated with the Pfizer vaccine have tested positive for coronavirus in the state of Israel.”

News report

Israel is recording its highest number of daily new infections since March.

And to pick one, representative day – 13 July – 53 per cent of the people testing positive were fully vaccinated. 

Alongside that, there’s another study from Israel which seems to show that after two doses the Pfizer vaccine is only 40 per cent effective at reducing the chance of you getting Covid with symptoms. 

That sounds like a lot to worry about.

Well, not really. It’s much more complicated – and interesting – than that.

It is true that Israel is seeing more infections than it has for a while, but it was starting from a really low base. The daily average now is about 1,400. Back in January it was over 8,000.

And those low numbers are an important thing. Because a small change can look like a big thing if you talk about it in percentage terms.

The other thing that matters is that so many adults in Israel have been vaccinated – remember, I said it was more than four out of five. 

And what that means is that it only takes a few people in the vaccinated group to test positive for them to outnumber people getting infected who haven’t been vaccinated. 

Because there are so many more vaccinated people in the first place, right?

And then you’ve got to bear in mind the difference between infections and severe infections.

Even though Israel’s data found Pfizer was pretty weak at preventing Covid symptoms, it was 91 per cent effective at preventing serious illness, which is really extraordinary.

And by the way, there was a different study – one that was sponsored by Public Health England – which found that the Pfizer vaccine was 88 per cent effective at protecting against catching Covid again and having the symptoms.

The vaccine skeptics aren’t saying much about that.

Of course, it doesn’t help to pretend that the Covid vaccines offer perfect protection for everyone.

So here are some home truths.

People who have weak immune systems tend to be less protected by the vaccine. 

There are some signs that if you were vaccinated right at the beginning of the roll-out the protection might be beginning to wear off. 

And while communities are still only partially vaccinated, there’s always the chance of a variant emerging that will dodge our vaccines.

But the real-life data that we have from Israel? Well, it’s telling us that against the Delta variant the vaccines are still working very well indeed.

That being said, it won’t stop the country being used as a case study by people who want to doubt the effectiveness of the vaccine. 

As Israel opens up into the glory of normal life… before nearly any other country in the world… its Covid cases will inevitably go up – just like they are in the UK. 

That means there’ll be plenty more data. And a lot more opportunities for people to twist it to fit their arguments. 

Today’s story was written and produced by Xavier Greenwood.

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