KEY POINTS
  • While the U.S. and Europe attempt to ramp up their own Covid vaccination drives, Israel is outpacing them all.
  • Israel's vaccination drive began on Dec. 19, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the first person to be vaccinated in the country.
  • Priority has been given to people aged over 60, health care workers and anyone clinically vulnerable — reported to make up around a quarter of its 9 million population.

LONDON — While the U.S., U.K. and Europe attempt to ramp up their own Covid vaccination drives, one country is outpacing them all: Israel.

Israel's vaccination drive began on Dec. 19 with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the first person to be vaccinated in the country. Priority has been given to people aged over 60, health care workers and anyone clinically vulnerable.

It has raced ahead of other countries that have also started their vaccination rollouts. To date, and with a new lockdown in place amid a surge in coronavirus cases, around 1.59 million people in Israel (of a population of 8.6 million) have received their first vaccine shot, according to Our World in Data.

By contrast, the U.S. has given the first inoculation to 5.9 million people (with a population of around 331 million), the U.K. has vaccinated 1.3 million (of 66 million) and just 45,000 people in France have received their first shot (population: 67 million).

In Israel, around 60% of the priority groups for the vaccine have now been immunized, despite some of them being hard to reach, such as those confined to their homes, according to Dr. Boaz Lev, who chairs the advisory committee for epidemic control and coronavirus vaccines at Israel's Ministry of Health. The country is vaccinating around 150,000 people per day, he added, and aims to have vaccinated the majority of the country by April.

"The core aim of our vaccination program is to vaccinate as many people as we can, as quickly as we can," Lev said.

Lessons for the rest of the world

From logistics to public information campaigns, there are a number of lessons that other countries could learn as they try to ramp up their own vaccination drives.

"First of all … plan in advance. Be prepared, have a big informational campaign and get the trust of the people, that's on one side," Lev told CNBC Wednesday.

"Then, create a good flow of vaccines, a good flow of people … with a good administrative background so that you can register them and they know when to come for their next jab. So there's a variety of things involving planning ahead basically, and having it rolled out so it flows."

People queue outside a Covid-19 mass vaccination center at Rabin Sqaure in this aerial photograph taken in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Monday, Jan. 4, 2020. Israel plans to vaccinate 70% to 80% of its population by April or May, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein has said.

Israeli officials have been tight-lipped about how many vaccinations the country has ordered, but vaccine makers reported that it has secured 8 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and 6 million doses of the Moderna vaccine (the first batch of which was due to arrive Thursday). It has not been revealed how much of the University of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine the country has ordered.

All of these vaccines require everyone to have two doses; there are reports that Israel paid higher vaccine prices as it vied to get supplies ahead of larger countries.

Lev said Israel's ambitious goal to vaccinate the majority of its population via its public hospitals and vaccination centers requires elaborate planning. "We need to have the logistics set up to do that and that takes a tremendous effort," he said.

"The next thing is to have the right order in vaccinating the people. As long as we don't have an abundance of vaccines ... we need to have a very orderly queue so we know who gets vaccinated and this should be according to some principles," he added. "It should be safe, it should be flexible, it should be simple as it can be, but it should also follow principles that those who are more vulnerable should get it first ... in order to mitigate the mortality and morbidity (of the pandemic)."

Logistics and distribution

Public health experts told CNBC there were a number of factors that had allowed Israel to vaccinate so efficiently, including its small population and geography, and the efficiency of its health care system.

Israel has a public health care system which requires everyone to belong to one of four health care maintenance organizations (or HMOs) that operate a bit like Britain's National Health Service. Vaccine supplies were distributed to these HMOs who in turn have deployed them to their respective members.

Ronit Calderon-Margalit, professor of epidemiology at the Hadassah-Hebrew University Braun School of Public Health, told CNBC Wednesday that the vaccination drive had exceeded her expectations. "It's amazing, it is going well beyond my wildest dreams, and it's not often I can say that," she said.

People receive a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine inside a Covid-19 mass vaccination center at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Monday, Jan. 4, 2020.

She attributed part of that success to the efficiency of the four HMOs: Clalit, Maccabi, Meuhedet and Leumit, or "Kupot Cholim" as they're collectively known.

"They all have vaccines from the government, to vaccinate the population, and they're very good with the logistics of distribution of services, of the vaccines," she said. Experts told CNBC that hospitals and clinics were also giving people outside of the priority groups the vaccines at the end of the day in order not to waste supplies.

Israel's health care system is highly digitized, so everyone receiving the vaccine is registered as having done so by the health ministry.

Israel has recorded 466,916 cases of the virus and 3,527 deaths, as of Thursday, according to data from the Johns Hopkins University. Like other countries, it has seen a winter surge of infections.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu blamed a new, more-transmissible strain of the virus first identified in Britain (what he called the "British mutation") for a spike in cases in the country. Israel is entering a new strict lockdown at midnight on Thursday for two weeks due to the infection surge.

Israel may have been praised for its vaccination drive but it has been criticized too, with reports that millions of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank have not been given access to the jabs.

As well as vaccination centers and clinics, hospitals are of course at the front line of distribution.

Yoel Har-Even is the director of international division and resource development at the Sheba Medical Center, the largest hospital in the Middle East (and incidentally, where Netanyahu was vaccinated in December).

He told CNBC on Wednesday that his hospital had vaccinated around 45,000 people over the last two weeks.

These people range from those most at-risk, including police officers and Holocaust survivors, an experience Har-Even said was very moving, to teachers. He said everyone he had met was happy to receive the vaccine (anti-vaccine sentiment is low in Israel), with mainstream media of all political leanings supporting the vaccination drive.

"We understand it's a crucial time and everyone right here is united," Har-Even said. "It reminds us a little bit of a time of war in Israel, and when there is war, there is unity."

He added that the acceptance and the willingness of people to receive the vaccine was a cause of great pride.

"You just have to see the lines and the queues of people who are standing silent, there's no pushing and no yelling," he said. "The time of corona means (the vaccination drive) is happening faster, quieter, and with much, much more order and efficiency in the process."