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Virus Spikes in Israel; Scientists Warn of Waning Vaccine Immunity

Vaccine Immunity coronavirus israel
The President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, with the first vaccinated person in Phase B of the Israeli coronavirus vaccination program. Credit:

Israel, which was justifiably proud of its extremely effective vaccine rollout this year, is now experiencing high coronavirus infection rates, or breakthroughs, in those who have been vaccinated, leading to questions about vaccine immunity.

With more than half, or 59 percent, of 514 patients who were hospitalized with Covid on August 15 being fully vaccinated, this begs the question that perhaps the vaccines do not have the staying power that they were thought to have.

Even though the vast majority of those hospitalized were over 60, the infections came as a very unwelcome surprise in a country that prided itself on inoculating more than half of its entire population by March of 2021.

This extraordinarily successful vaccine rollout made the country one of the benchmarks in the world in the fight against the coronavirus, pointing the way for other countries.

By now, 33% of the global population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine; a total of 5.13 billion doses have been administered across the world, and 36.21 million are now administered each and every day.

Now it appears, however, that Israel does not have the coronavirus whipped quite as much as it may have thought it did, and that vaccinations alone are not going to be enough to tamp down its spread throughout society.

As Newsweek reports this week, Israel now has one of the worst rates of the coronavirus per million in the entire world, according to information from OurWorldInData as of August 24.

Although the Israeli Health Ministry did not disclose information regarding the seriousness of the infections in those who had been vaccinated — or indeed how many who have died with the infection were vaccinated — the fact that these people had been vaccinated and are ill enough to be hospitalized is worrying to many experts.

Uri Shalit, who works as a bioinformatician at the Israel Institute of Technology, told Science in an interview that “most of the hospitalized patients are actually vaccinated.”

Last week, however, Reuters reported that Israeli doctors had stated that severe  coronavirus breakthrough cases occurred mostly in patients who were older and suffered from other diseases.

Now that the Delta variant of the virus ranges around the world, comprising up to 100% of the positive coronavirus cases in some areas, some are speculating, however, that there is a lessening of the immunity granted by the vaccines, to a greater degree than had previously been understood.

Although no vaccine has ever been 100% effective, and the vaccines on the market in the Western world are extraordinarily effective, at around 95%- 98%, Pfizer and other manufacturers had already stated that they believed booster shots would be needed after six months from the time of first vaccination.

Data presented on July 28 by Pfizer indicates that a third booster shot of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine may significantly increase protection against the Delta variant of Covid.

The data showed that antibodies in those ages ages 18 to 55 increase by five times after getting a third dose of the vaccine.

The increase is even greater for older people ages 65 to 85, with eleven times as many antibodies in seniors who received a third shot. The data pool for these findings is currently limited to just twenty three people and has not yet gone through the extensive process of peer review.

The data was presented during a company earnings call by Dr. Mikael Dolsten, who is the head of worldwide research and development for Pfizer.

“Receiving a third dose more than six months after vaccination, when protection may be beginning to wane, was estimated to potentially boost the neutralizing antibody titers in participants in this study to up to 100 times higher post-dose three compared to pre-dose three,” Dolsten said in statement about Pfizer’s findings.

“These preliminary data are very encouraging as Delta continues to spread.”

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the director of public health services in Israel, told Newsweek that at the beginning of August there was already evidence of waning immunity against the coronavirus in those who were vaccinated early on in the country.

The data from Israel raises concerns about the threat of the Delta variant as the vaccines appear to wane in the providing of immunity over time.

Rowland Kao, a professor of veterinary epidemiology and data science at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland told interviewers  “The key finding here is that there is evidence of waning immunity from the vaccinated population.

“Israel, with its very early vaccination campaign has been looked to as being an advance indicator of what happens in other countries, and the evidence they present that immune protection in the face of the delta variant declines with time is an important indicator of what may happen in other countries.”

Kao added that the vital issue here is whether or not the coronavirus, in tandem with the usual wintertime respiratory infections such as the flu, will cause hospitalization rates to outstrip capacities later this year.

However, it is vital, scientists say, that the public not become too skeptical about the efficacy of the vaccines, since they do play a vital role in combating the virus and the variants. There was never any claim that breakthrough cases could not occur, contrary to what some members of the public appear to believe.

“I think the public expected vaccines to work overnight and put a full stop to the pandemic,” stated William P. Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health to Newsweek.

“Ultimately, while vaccines are the key to controlling the pandemic and transitioning to a more steady ‘normal’ post-pandemic state, they will not do it immediately both because of the residual non-immune unvaccinated population, and the potential for variants,” he added.

Others in the biomedical community agree, saying that no one approach will be able to eliminate the virus from the world.

Alexander Edwards, associate professor in biomedical technology at the University of Reading, in the UK, admitted to interviewers that the inoculations “are not a silver bullet” and “cannot be expected to eliminate public health problems caused by infections.”

He added that “Instead, they remain a vital tool — in fact a solid gold tool — but other tools are still essential.”

Mask-wearing, which has now be reinstituted in many areas across the world, does work to help prevent the spread of the virus, as well as hand washing, and proper social distancing, according to all medical experts around the globe.

Israel is already reporting that their vaccine booster campaign which they embarked on long before one was even discussed in the United States, is already reported to be significantly improving protection against the virus.

Dr. Edward Hutchinson, a senior lecturer at the Center for Virus Research at the University of Glasgow, says it’s important to realize how far the world has come in the fights against this seemingly-endless pandemic.

“Back in mid-2020 we would have been delighted with a vaccine that offered even partial protection against severe disease, and we ended up with multiple, safe vaccines that gave almost complete protection against severe disease,” he says.

“Given how hard it has previously been to make good vaccines against new viruses, it is hard to overstate how remarkable the SARS-CoV-2 vaccines are,” he notes, adding “They cannot completely stop the spread of the virus — that genie is out of the bottle. But they can be used to turn SARS-CoV-2 into a virus that does not disrupt our normal lives.”

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