Friday, January 21, 2022

On January 10, the government of Israel held a virtual international press briefing, “Israel Faces COVID-19—Omicron and the Fourth Vaccine Dose.” Dr Asher Salmon, head of the Ministry of Health’s International Relations, and Ambassador Daniel Meron, COVID-19 project manager of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, presented to almost 200 participants worldwide.

Meron recalled last week’s exchange between Salmon’s group of Israeli experts and 25-30 American experts on the other side of the call. “The New Jersey health commissioner said, ‘I cannot finish this without going to the governor of New Jersey and saying, ‘I spoke to Israel and I learned something from you.’’ In America, there is a good name for Israel when it comes to COVID.”

Meron continued, “That reminds me of what Dr. Fauci said, ‘If you want to know what’s happening in COVID, fighting this pandemic, go to Israel, and hear what Israel is doing.’ We feel we have a lot of experience. We learn from others and we exchange information. Together, we will manage to overcome this situation.”

Salmon, a senior Israeli oncologist and former vice deputy director of Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, said, “We’re dealing with the fifth wave, a very different wave. Doubling time is much higher, three times more new cases than we expected, and over the next three weeks will stay high. Due to testing limitations, we won’t have the full extent of the cases, from asymptomatic to severe, in the coming weeks.”

Salmon added, “Due to different molecular changes of the virus, this respiratory disease is a much more mild or an upper respiratory infection, not a deep respiratory infection that we saw with the original COVID variants. It doesn’t mean that we’re dealing with a benign situation. Even if one in five of what we saw in the past would need hospitalization, hospitals would be overwhelmed. We follow very closely what is happening in South Africa’s and Europe’s massive spread of omicron.”

Due to the overwhelming numbers trying to get PCR tests in Israel, Salmon said that the country needs to change the testing system. “Last week, we passed 200,000 tests per day for 9 million residents. It takes three or four days to get results: totally ineffective. I’m not even talking about the price.”

Salmon reported that Israel is allowing home-based antigen testing for people at low risk (mostly young people) and people below 60 who have no high risks. He noted that there are many limitations to this approach. “First, it’s less accurate; second, many people tend not to report; third, not everyone knows how to use these kits properly. That is the reality of what we are doing. That is true for the general population. That is true also for school-age students.”

He explained that health professionals are still sticking to PCR tests for people with high-risk parameters and the elderly population, which could be at an elevated risk of severe forms of the disease. “We are, at the same time, offering community-wide new medications: a combination of two different mechanisms to stop proliferation and replication of the virus.”

Regarding the fourth vaccine, Salmon explained it has only been offered to individuals age 60 and above and for healthcare employees. Israel plans to study this group before they require a fourth dose. “As we have done with the third dose, we started researching populations at the end of July,” Salmon noted. “By mid-August, we got very impressive results—a sharp drop in new cases and less severe forms of disease. We decided to expand it to the whole population. The question is how often to boost in the future. I think it’s not feasible to have an injection more than once a year. I think it should be combined with the flu shot every year. If we would get to the point of that being enough, it is very good news.”

Meron added that in 2022, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is going to share with other countries more than a million vaccines, mainly in Africa. The Israeli foreign aid branch distributed 80 assistance packages to 40 countries, including syringes, protective gear and pharmaceuticals. “We’re looking for more ways where we could be involved internationally helping them deal with this situation.”

By Judy Berger


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