Professor Nachman Ash, coronavirus czar
Professor Nachman Ash, coronavirus czar Dafna Gazit

Referring to polls suggesting that as many as 30% of Israeli citizens could refuse to be vaccinated against coronavirus, the government’s coronavirus project manager, Professor Nachman Ash, said that the figures were cause for concern as the country’s success in defeating the disease was largely dependent on the number of people who do agree to get a vaccine shot.

Speaking on Radio 103FM on Tuesday, he said that the government’s aim is “to restore normalcy to our daily lives, and this depends a lot on how many people get vaccinated. This is why we have to do what we can to ensure that enough people agree to be vaccinated, and why we are investing a great deal in disseminating information and persuading people of the efficacy and safety of the vaccine, as well as in combating fake news.”

He noted that, “According to our initial estimates, a significant number of people are either undecided or opposed to being vaccinated – around thirty percent.” He also appeared to be placing at least part of the onus of responsibility on medical personnel in promoting the government’s vaccination program, saying that, “I think that if people see doctors and nurses getting the shot, they will too. So that’s also one of our challenges – to make sure that happens, and I do believe that we will succeed in persuading people of the importance and efficacy of the vaccine even though we are having to deal with a number of conflicting opinions on the matter,” he admitted.

Prof. Ash noted that another aspect of public perception regarding the epidemic was also cause for concern among Health Ministry staff – “a feeling of complacency, even of being relaxed about the situation, as if the crisis were already over. We are still paying a high price in human lives with this disease,” he said, “as well as in long-term ramifications even among those who recover from it. This is no simple illness.”

He added that, “Trials involving tens of thousands of volunteers have shown this Pfizer vaccine to have a 95%-efficacy level – that is to say, 95% of people getting the vaccine are expected not to experience significant symptoms if they do contract coronavirus. Furthermore, the side effects are minimal – local swelling at the injection site, localized pain, slight fever lasting for a few days – and that’s it.”

He admitted that the mRNA technology utilized by Pfizer in creating its vaccine is “new technology, but when we examine the biology behind it, there’s really no reason for concern about potential dangers. All vaccines are more-or-less based on the same concept of introducing the virus’ protein to the body which provokes an immune response, and here we’re using the protein without any viral particles at all, rather than inactivated virus particles, such as are used in older-style vaccines.” Referring to reports that the health funds may refuse to commence vaccinations if the government does not assume responsibility for vaccine damages, he insisted that the government would compensate the funds in the events of claims of damages or severe side-effects.

Recent reports have highlighted the potential dangers of the vaccine for those who suffer from severe allergic reactions in general, to the extent that they carry with them at all times an epinephrine auto-injector (epipen). Nonetheless, Prof. Ash said that, “We are exploring the possibility of vaccinating such people in hospital settings, where medical personnel are immediately on-hand in cases of severe allergic reaction. The two cases reported in the United Kingdom were promptly dealt with and they made good recoveries, giving us reason to believe that it is possible to undertake such a program even for those who know they have issues with allergies.”

Professor Ash is hopeful that a majority of Israeli citizens could be vaccinated by March-April of next year, enabling the coming Passover festival to be celebrated as in ordinary years – with extended families together, with no concerns about social distancing. However, he stressed that it all depends on how many people agree to get a shot, and did not rule out the possibility that a third nationwide lockdown may yet need to be imposed.

“We are doing what we can to avoid another lockdown, by using less severe measures that enable normal life to proceed as far as possible, including keeping schools open. However, to date we have not seen that this approach is as effective as it needs to be, with infection rates rising once again, and if this trend continues, we may well find ourselves in yet another lockdown.”

Asked to comment on the recent request of the Health Ministry to have the UAE declared a “red” country (where coronavirus infection rates are high), Ash denied that the move was political in nature. “Lots of Israelis are traveling out there right now, and they way they behave once there definitely exposes them to contagion,” he said. “We would prefer that the UAE was declared a ‘red zone,’ from a health perspective – but of course there are social and economic perspectives to take into account as well. The matter is due to be discussed again tomorrow and things could yet change there.”

Professor Ash also stressed how important it is that Israel develops a coronavirus vaccine of its own, even though it has already secured millions of doses from Pfizer and Moderna, and placed orders with other pharmaceutical companies as well. “It’s very important that we have our own home-grown vaccine,” he said, “and I am delighted at the progress being made by the Biological Institute in developing their own vaccine. We want to keep all options open, and we have to keep the long-term situation in mind. It’s quite possible that in the future, there will be further coronavirus outbreaks in Israel, which is why the Biological Institute’s program is so vital.”

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