image Photo: Reuters, Flash90

Israel works to obtain new vaccine

Israel has signed a deal to be among the world’s first nations to receive the COVID-19 vaccine candidate by the U.S. biotech firm Arcturus Therapeutics. The company announced that it expects to start distribution in the first quarter of next year after early stage trials showed promising results. The only other country to have secured shipment is Singapore.

The California-based company’s announcement came as Pfizer revealed that its COVID-19 vaccine is more than 90% effective based on initial trial results, signifying a major victory in the war against a virus that has killed over a million people, battered the world economy and heavily impact daily life.

Israel has requested assistance from the U.S. government to facilitate access to Pfizer’s PFE.N potential COVID-19 vaccine.

According to a statement issued by Israeli Finance Minister Yisrael Katz, he discussed the vaccine during talks with U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. “I asked Mnuchin for help in supplying the vaccine to Israel in parallel with its supply to the United States, as part of an agreement signed between the U.S. administration and the company for the immediate delivery of 600 million doses,” Katz said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it an important day in the fight against the pandemic and said “the end is in sight.”

“My goal at the moment is to do one thing – to bring vaccines to you citizens of Israel, and we will do so,” he vowed.

Israel also already has an agreement with Moderna Inc. for the future purchase of its potential COVID-19 vaccine, and has been in talks with other companies as well.

This comes in addition to the conducting of human trials of the country’s own “BriLife” vaccine developed by Israel’s Institute for Biological Research (IIBR).

Israel enacted a second, monthlong nationwide lockdown in September after suffering the highest infection rate per capita in the world, at an apex of over 10,000 cases per day. Official data published this morning shows there have been 296 new cases, 2678 deaths and 320,184 total cases in the nation of nine million people.

Earlier today, senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, 65,  died of COVID-19. The PLO leader and outspoken critic of Israel was diagnosed with the disease in the Palestinian Authority on 9 October, and rushed from his Jericho home in critical condition to Israel’s Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem 9 days later for emergency care of respiratory complications.

Meanwhile, Israel’s gradual exit strategy from the monthlong closure is proceeding, although all hotels remain shuttered contrary to expectations due to a legislative spat.

A government bill to allow the reopening of “special tourism zones” at the Red Sea resort city of Eilat and Ein Bokek area of the Dead Sea had been submitted for Knesset approval, but the phrase “anywhere else” had been inserted and approved by the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

Israeli Health Minister Yuli Edelstein objected to clause as over concern it could be used by unauthorized venues to evade government restrictions. Members of Knesset resisted Health Minister’s request to cut the text, so he struck down the bill in its entirety. “Populist Members of Knesset have taken Eilat hostage for whims that endanger public health,” Edelstein said. “Suddenly, everyone is a self-appointed epidemiologist or health expert.”

Eilat Mayor Meir Yitzhak-Halevi, who was in the plenum during the quashing of the bill, reacted with shock and said it was “a disgrace.”

The popular travel destinations of Eilat and Ein Bokek had considered “safe” for re-opening due to their remote location far from large population centers. The dramatic loss of visitors led to an unemployment rate of at least 70% in Eilat during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, heightened steps are being taken to prevent a mutated form of the novel coronavirus from spreading in the country. 3 Israelis returning home from Denmark tested positive for the “mink virus,” which appears to have decreased sensitivity to antibodies.

Israel has now classified Denmark as a “red country” following Copenhagen’s identification of a new strain in 214 human COVID-19 cases associated with mink farms.

Israel’s Health Ministry said that even though only a small number of people have been confirmed as infected with the new mutation, it is working with the Home Front Command to locate anyone who has travelled to the Scandinavian nation so they can be administered special tests.

Anyone entering Israel from Denmark is required to remain in quarantine until they test negative of the strain.

Migration of the new COVID-19 mutation comes just as Israel opened a new rapid coronavirus testing lab at the Ben Gurion International Airport. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inaugurated the center, which he said “can help us return faster, better and more efficiently to normal air travel” so it can be made “possible to reunite Israel with the world.”

Until now, travelers had to provide their own documentation showing they were clear of the virus conducted prior to arrival at the airport.

The center’s express test costs ₪135 Shequel ($40) and delivers results between 5.5 and 6 hours. A less-expensive ₪45 Shequel ($13) is also available at the Ben Gurion terminal, but can take up to 14 hours for analysis.

Prime Minister Minister Netanyahu declined offers to undergo testing during the lab’s opening ceremony, quipping in English, “I gave at the office.” The Israeli leader underwent precautionary testing in March during Israel’s first COVID-19 lockdown after an aide tested positive, during which time he entered a voluntary quarantine until results confirmed he was virus-free.