Exclusive: How Israel is leading the global Covid-19 vaccine rollout

By Shirley Tay

30 per cent of Israel’s population has received the first dose. Ambassador Sagi Karni shares the lessons behind this success.

Israel has had a roaring start to its Covid-19 vaccination program. Since December 20, it has administered the first dose to 3 million citizens - or 30 per cent of its population - and plans to vaccinate all Israelis over 16 by the end of March.

Early data has shown a promising drop in infection rates after just one shot of the vaccine. This is a light at the end of the tunnel for Israel, which is currently experiencing a surge in cases and under its third national lockdown.

How did a tiny nation like Israel vaccinate its population faster than other wealthier, bigger countries? GovInsider caught up with Sagi Karni, Israel’s Ambassador to Singapore, to find out the factors behind its success.

Digitised and flexible rollout

Israel’s digitised public health system is the foundation of its rapid vaccination program, Karni says. All citizens are enrolled in one of four health funds, which keep digital records of all patients from birth.

Vaccines are transported from its airport to logistics centres run by a subsidiary of Teva Pharmaceuticals, a local drugmaker. The vaccines are then distributed to the nation's four different health funds in proportion to their sizes.

“Everything is digitalised”, Karni says. Text messages prompt Israelis to contact their respective health funds to be vaccinated. “Two weeks ago, I got a message on my phone saying, ‘please call this number to get your queue for the vaccination’”.

Israel has transformed parking lots, stadiums, and its iconic Rabin Square into vaccination centers. The government has also approved a drive-in clinic, the first in the world, according to The Financial Times.

Priority first went to healthcare workers and those above 60, and now to teenagers aged 16 to 18. But facilities have also administered leftover doses to any Israeli who wants them to prevent wastage.

This flexibility “boosted the speed in a way that I think is very unique and different from other countries,” Karni says.
“In Israel, we are very good at improvising. We know that you don’t always have to stick to the plan.”

Data is the answer

Israel’s steady supply of Covid-19 vaccines also has much to do with its success. But how did the nation beat other countries in securing vaccine shipments?

Israel announced last month that it had agreed to provide Pfizer with extensive data on its inoculation programme, in exchange for vaccine deliveries to be expedited. “We will be the first country in the world to emerge from the coronavirus,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a press release.

With more deliveries from Moderna and AstraZeneca on the way, Israel is set to have a surplus of vaccines by March, The Financial Times reported.

Such data sharing will help vaccine manufacturers and other countries tackle the outbreak, Karni says. “When you have a relatively new vaccine which has just started to be administered to the population, it's very, very important to share information in order to learn from it.”

Covid-19 vaccines were developed at breakneck speed - creating a “real medical need to monitor it for a long period of time,” he adds. “So if we can help in providing this analysis of the population, we will help.”

Culture of vaccination

Israel has a strong culture of vaccination, and that has helped in its Covid-19 vaccine rollout. “There is no fear and as far as I know, there is no anti-vaccination movement,” Karni says.

Netanyahu was the first in the country to be vaccinated in December. Other high-profile figures have also been vaccinated publicly, creating a “certain degree of confidence for the people”.

Willingness to take the vaccines is so high that queues of younger people hoping for leftover doses form in front of inoculation stations, Politico wrote.

Governments need to encourage people to be vaccinated, Karni says. “It’s the responsibility of leadership to get their population to be welcoming the vaccine and to have an effective vaccination campaign.”

Issuing immunity passports

“The pandemic will stay with us globally for a long period of time,” Karni says. To help the country exit its third lockdown, Israel plans to issue ‘green passports’ to vaccinated citizens.

The immunity documents will be given to citizens who have received both shots of the vaccine, he adds. Proof of vaccination will be stored in the health ministry’s database.

Individuals with it will no longer have to be isolated after coming into contact with an infected person or travelling to countries with high infection rates. They also won’t need to be tested before entering “green islands” - Israel’s virus-free zones.

“We hope that it will create a certain confidence that will allow people to start traveling more,” Karni says.
These immunity passports will require mutual recognition from other countries. “The best would be some international standard to create trust, but I really don't know if this is something that's going to happen anytime soon.”

The role of international partnerships

“Until all are safe, nobody is safe,” Karni says. International coordination will be crucial in ensuring Covid-19 vaccines reach everybody - initiatives like WHO’s vaccine distribution programme, Covax, are highly necessary.

This will be “very challenging”, he acknowledges, “because countries usually take care of their own citizens first”. “It’s a moral and ethical dilemma.”

“Between Israel and Singapore, there's a very good exchange of information, best practices and things like that,” Karni says. He hopes the two nations can work together to exchange information on vaccination policies, and look to mutual recognition of immunity passports.

Israel has valuable lessons to offer as countries race ahead in their vaccination programmes. A digitised and flexible health system, together with international partnerships, will help the world overcome the pandemic.

Image taken by Joy Lim