Less than a month into a COVID-19 vaccine booster drive, Israel is seeing signs of an impact on the country’s high infection and severe illness rates fuelled by the fast-spreading Delta variant, officials and scientists say.
Delta hit Israel in June, just as the country began to reap the benefits of one of the world’s fastest vaccine roll-outs.
With an open economy and most curbs scrapped, Israel went from single-digit daily infections and zero deaths to around 7,500 daily cases last week, 600 people hospitalized in serious condition and more than 150 people dying in that week alone.
On July 30, it began administering a third dose of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine to people over 60, the first country to do so. On Thursday it expanded eligibility to 40-year-olds and up whose second dose was given at least 5 months prior, saying the age may drop further.
In the past 10 days, the pandemic is abating among the first age group, more than a million of whom have received a third vaccine dose, according to Israeli health ministry data and scientists interviewed by Reuters.
The rate of disease spread among vaccinated people age 60 and over – known as the reproduction rate – began falling steadily around Aug. 13 and has dipped below 1, indicating that each infected person is transmitting the virus to fewer than one other person. A reproduction rate of less than 1 means an outbreak is subsiding.
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Scientists said booster shots are having an impact on infections, but other factors are likely contributing to the decline as well.
“The numbers are still very high but what has changed is that the very high increase in the rate of infections and severe cases has diminished, as has the pace at which the pandemic is spreading,” said Eran Segal, data scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science and an adviser to the government.
“This is likely due to the third booster shots, an uptake in people taking the first dose and the high number of people infected per week, possibly up to 100,000, who now have natural immunity,” Segal said.