A key vaccine advisor to the Israeli government has revealed he and his colleagues were “surprised” and “disappointed” last year as it became clear the jabs were not stopping the spread of Covid-19.
Professor Cyrille Cohen, head of immunology at Bar Ilan University and a member of the advisory committee on vaccines for the Israeli government, made the comments in a wide-ranging and frank interview with UK news website UnHerd on Wednesday.
Israel, with a population of just 9.4 million, led the world in vaccination against Covid-19 early, starting its rollout in December 2020.
In April 2021, Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla said early trial data showed its vaccine “was 100 per cent effective against severe Covid-19”.
“Did you expect the vaccines to be better at preventing transmission than they were?” host Freddie Sayers asked Prof Cohen.
“Yes … especially based on what we had seen in March, in April,” he replied.
“The feeling we had in Israel last Spring, we were after a deadly month of January with more than 4000 people that died, we were after our third lockdown, and suddenly we were opening and opening and opening, and cases were going down, hospitals were getting empty. I’m not joking, my colleagues, doctors were dancing in the corridors out of joy (thinking) it’s over.”
Prof Cohen said he and his colleagues “did believe at that time that vaccines can prevent transmission”.
“What we believed is that vaccines can prevent transmission perhaps shortly after (being administered) but not over a long period of time, and therefore yes, we were surprised to discover at the end of the day that no, the vaccines are not protecting us, they are not causing what we call sterilising immunity,” he said.
Health officials in countries including Australia now say that although the vaccines to not prevent the spread of Covid-19, they reduce the severity of the disease and so ease the strain on hospitals.
Prof Cohen agreed with Sayers that in the context of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, Israel’s “Green Pass” vaccine passport was no longer relevant.
“I tend to think so,” he said, adding that while it was still in place it was no longer being heavily enforced due to rising public opposition amid soaring Omicron cases.
“We don’t see virtually any difference between people vaccinated and non-vaccinated, both can get infected with the virus more or less at the same pace,” he said.
“We have to look at the future. We need better vaccines to prevent transmission.”
His comments come after a leading Israeli immunologist slammed the government’s pandemic response over the past two years.
Writing for N12 News, Professor Ehud Qimron, head of microbiology and immunology at Tel Aviv University, called on the Israeli Ministry of Health to “admit failure”.
“You refused to admit that the vaccinated are contagious despite the observations,” he wrote. “Based on this, you hoped to achieve herd immunity by vaccination – and you failed in that as well.”
More than 80 per cent of Israeli adults have now received two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine, and more than half have received a booster.
Israel said last month it intends to begin rolling out a fourth shot to combat Omicron, despite a lack of scientific evidence on its impact.
Tens of thousands of new cases are being reported each day, overwhelming testing services.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has warned the current Omicron wave could see up to four million people, or 40 per cent of the population infected.
Since the start of the pandemic Israel has recorded just over two million cases and 8362 deaths.
Earlier this week, Israeli researchers said preliminary data from a study of more than 270 medical workers showed even a fourth dose was “not good enough” to prevent Omicron.
Meanwhile, a South African study investigating the first documented breakthrough cases of the new variant in people who had received boosters, published in The Lancet on Tuesday, concluded that booster shots of mRNA vaccines failed to block Omicron.
The World Health Organisation has called on pharmaceutical companies to develop updated shots, warning that a vaccination strategy “based on repeated booster doses of the original vaccine composition is unlikely to be appropriate or sustainable”.
Pfizer’s Dr Bourla last week said two doses of its current Covid-19 vaccine offer “very limited protection, if any” against Omicron, while three doses “offer reasonable protection against hospitalisation and deaths”.
He said Pfizer was working on an Omicron-specific version of the vaccine, which should be available by March.
Moderna is also working on an updated version of its vaccine, set to be introduced later this year.
“We are discussing with public health leaders around the world to decide what we think is the best strategy for the potential booster for the fall of 2022,” Moderna chief executive Stephane Bancel told CNBC.
“We believe it will contain Omicron.”