People wait in line patiently at a pop-up vaccination center inside a city building in West Jerusalem. “I am here to get my third shot — it’s really important so Israel can open up,” says Leah Powell, a student visiting from the US. “There is still a mask mandate in some places, but it feels like real life is coming back.”
The situation looked less optimistic this summer when the delta variant of the coronavirus was spreading rapidly. Infections started picking up at the start of July and by mid-September, cases were the highest they have ever been. Hospitals received many more severely ill patients — first among the vaccinated, and later among the mostly unvaccinated younger population.
“The main weapon that we have Israel and in many other places is the vaccine,” said Salman Zarka, Israel’s “coronavirus czar” and head of the national COVID task force, in an interview with DW. “With the start of delta wave, we realized that people who have had two doses were not protected anymore. We had to take a decision rapidly.”
That decision was based on scientific studies suggesting that immunity wanes after six months, putting especially elderly people at risk again. They were among the first to be vaccinated in December 2020, when Israel started its vaccination campaign after striking a deal with BioNTech-Pfizer, and the first group to be approved for a booster this past July.
“There is no question that the third vaccine, the booster, saved Israel,” said Gabriel Barbash, a professor for epidemiology at the Weizmann Institute of Science and one of Israel’s top health experts. “I think life is going back to normal, but to a new normal. We are not going to give up masks. They are going to be required in any place that is a closed space.”
While boosters are a “powerful tool” to protect the community, Barbash warned that the effects will diminish at some point. “It’s going to wane and we need to be ready, we need to be cautious about it.”
Israel’s strategy to “live with COVID-19” has worked so far, although it has not been without controversy. Schools and the economy have remained mostly open. Infection rates have sharply fallen, along with it the number of severely ill patients in hospitals.
Studies are now underway in real time to understand for how long the third vaccine will provide immunity. This could help other wealthy countries to navigate the pandemic in the months to come.