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Israel is leading the world in COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Here’s what Canada can learn

Click to play video 'Coronavirus: Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu becomes latest world leader to get vaccine' Coronavirus: Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu becomes latest world leader to get vaccine
WATCH: Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu becomes latest world leader to get vaccine – Dec 19, 2020

Israel is the world’s leader in coronavirus vaccinations, reaching nearly 15 per cent of the country’s 9.3 million population in about two weeks. Canada, which has approved the same Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, is falling behind.

Our World in Data, a collaboration between researchers at the University of Oxford and the non-profit group Global Change Data Lab, shows Israel leading the world in per capita vaccinations.

Read more: Canada’s ‘slow’ rollout of coronavirus vaccine ’embarrassing’: experts

In comparison, Canada ranks ninth on the list (tied with Germany) and falls behind countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Iceland and the United Arab Emirates.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday acknowledged Canada’s slow pace, saying he is frustrated to hear that a large number of Canada’s coronavirus vaccines remain sitting in freezers instead of in people’s arms.

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Canada has distributed 424,150 of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines since mid-December. More than 194,258 Canadians have received at least one dose of an approved COVID-19 vaccine. That means 44.5 per cent of the doses delivered have been administered. And 0.517 per cent of the Canadian population has received at least one dose.

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Trudeau ‘frustrated’ with speed of coronavirus vaccine rollout – Jan 5, 2021

Canada is around 450 times larger than Israel and has more than 28 million people. So vaccinating the Canadian population has more hurdles.

But experts say, despite the geographic barriers, Canada should be looking towards other nations, like Israel to see what it’s doing right.

Israel’s vaccine approach

Israel, like Canada, was one of the first countries to start rolling out vaccines. The country began vaccinations on Dec. 20, and on average has inoculated around 150,000 people a day, with priority given to people over 60, health workers and vulnerable people.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli to be inoculated against coronavirus, saying he wanted to set an example.

While Israel is in its third lockdown and faces a recession and high unemployment, it has avoided the shortages and bottlenecks faced by other countries.

Distribution

In terms of distribution, Israeli teams have repacked Pfizer’s large ultra-frozen pallets into insulated boxes the size of small pizzas, allowing doses to be delivered in smaller numbers and at more remote sites.

The technique, Israel says, got the green light from Pfizer.

Health Minister Yoel Edelstein said in a statement on Dec. 28, that Israel is the first country to repackage the doses into more easily transportable containers that allow the country to move the vaccines outside of hospitals and into more accessible clinics.

“This way we will reach everywhere around the country without losing precious vaccines and Israel will be the leading country worldwide in vaccination,” Edelstein said.

Israel has set up 150 vaccine clinics across the country, as well as sports arenas and conference centres to act as “super sites” for inoculations. Haifa, a coastal city in Israel, even set up a drive-in vaccination site, where citizens can roll up in their vehicles and receive a vaccine without taking off their seatbelts.

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A large vaccination centre open by the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality and Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center is pictured on Dec. 31, 2020 in the Israeli coastal city. JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

In contrast, Ontario has only 19 vaccination clinics, and so far Manitoba is the only province to set up a “super site” for vaccines.

Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said Israel’s creativity, pace and efficiency of getting the population vaccinated should be a learning opportunity for Canada.

The fact that [Canada has] been really lurchy over the last few weeks is embarrassing and a little bit tragic,” he said.
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Read more: COVID-19 vaccinations cut back over holidays due to staff shortages, Ontario government says

For example, he said the fact that vaccination clinics in Ontario closed over the holidays was a big mistake and caused setbacks.

“There isn’t a single person in health care for which that made any sense whatsoever,” he said.

Israelis receive the coronavirus vaccine at a drive-in Covid-19 vaccination centre on December 31, 2020 in Haifa, Israel. Amir Levy/Getty Images

Kerry Bowman, a professor of bioethics and global health at the University of Toronto, agreed that Canada should be learning from other nations.

He said arenas, conference centres and even doctors offices should be utilized in order to get the vaccines in people’s arms.

“Canada is definitely having a slower start. And each day and week goes by, we run the great risk of falling further and further behind,” he said. “Existing infrastructure is not being used and you have people volunteering that haven’t been called. And so that’s very, very worrisome.”

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Centralized health-care system

Another approach that has been working for Israel is its health-care system, which is centralized and digitized, Furness said.

“Israel’s got a very well organized health-care system,” he said. “Their system is really modern and really efficient.”

Isreal, like Canada, has a universal public health-care system. Their system requires every resident, by law, to be covered by a health-care maintenance organisation (HMO), which is then connected to a nationwide digital network.

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Furness explained that the centralized system in Israel has worked really well, as the government can monitor which citizens received vaccines as well as let people know (via email or tex) when they can get their shot.

Canada’s system, on the other hand, is decentralized and divided by provinces.

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“It’s like ten countries in one rather than one giant country,” Furness said, adding that although the provincial health-care system has huge benefits, it also means sharing information is just one more hurdle in the vaccine distribution process.

Running out of vaccines

Israel’s vaccine distribution is not without problems.

Because the country has been so successful in rolling out vaccines, local media are reporting it could run out of vaccines next week.

The Times of Israel on Monday reported that Israel will slow down or even completely stop vaccinating people next week with the first dose of the Pfizer inoculation due to a shortage of vaccines that will take several weeks to resolve.

The distribution is also not without controversy.

Read more: Canada’s pharmacies ‘ready and willing’ to join coronavirus vaccination effort

So far, the government’s inoculation campaign has not extended to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip — people in those regions have not had access to any vaccinations yet.

On Wednesday, Amnesty International called on Israel to provide coronavirus vaccine doses to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, saying the Jewish state was obligated to do so under international law.

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Canada’s sluggish start

Canada isn’t the only country that’s been off to a sluggish start for vaccine rollouts.

The U.S. has also faced hurdles.

The slow pace is frustrating health officials, with only about a third of the first supplies shipped to states having been used as of Tuesday morning — just over three weeks into the vaccination campaign.

But on Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, top U.S. infectious disease expert, said the country could soon be giving at least a million COVID-19 vaccinations a day.

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Coronavirus vaccine lures Canadians snowbirds to the U.S – Jan 5, 2021

“Any time you start a big program, there’s always glitches. I think the glitches have been worked out,” he told The Associated Press.

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Furness also believes that despite Canada’s slow start, the government should soon start rolling out shots at a much faster pace.

“So as frustrating as this is, we’re going to feel a little ‘egg on face’ by the end of January where we really have spooled up our ability to vaccinate, and then we run out of vaccines,” he said.

— With files from Reuters and the Associated Press