Enthusiasm over evidence? What the Israeli vaccination data actually show.

Coronavirus vaccines are crucial to taming the pandemic. Everyone should get one. Please, please, get vaccinated.

Now, that’s out of the way—I’m no anti-vaxxer. I am a huge supporter of vaccines and believe vaccination will help bring an early end to the worst global health disaster in modern history.

But there is something strange happening. Media and scientific articles on vaccine effectiveness are increasingly unhinged. Reports are drifting away from science on a riptide of hopeful ignorance.

Case in point: Israel, which in the past month has become the world’s most important laboratory for real-world vaccine effects (in this case Pfizer’s). The country was on lockdown for over a month due to a massive COVID surge. Fortunately, the lockdown seems to have worked, slowly bending the curve just as it did in September during their last surge.

More importantly for observers from around the globe, however, in just two months, the country managed to vaccinate close to 90 percent of Israelis over 60, the group at highest risk for severe illness and death.

Armed with this information, now examine the trend lines and graphs for new cases and daily COVID deaths in Israel. For comparison, examine the corresponding trend lines and graphs from Palestine. They are similar, shifted by perhaps a few weeks. Another comparison might be Lebanon, where recent trends look nearly indistinguishable from Israel’s.

But only Israel vaccinated its most vulnerable citizens.

Want a second data source? Repeat the above at 91-DIVOC, a site that uses daily updates from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center to graph the same data.

To get nerdy for a moment, note the undeniable downward trend in COVID-19 cases starting roughly three weeks after Israel’s lockdown began in late December. Again, this is identical to the trend line seen during Israel’s September lockdown. So, with 90 percent of the country’s elderly (over age 60) vaccinated, why is the effect of widespread vaccination not visible?

Is the new strain (now predominant in Israel) so virulent that numbers would have been worse without a vaccine? Is the effect buried in changes caused by the lockdown? If so, why do graphs from Lebanon and Palestine, where virtually no one is vaccinated, look the same or better?

To be sure, some data suggest the older, vaccinated group in Israel is faring slightly better than those who are unvaccinated. But the differences don’t even approach the 95 percent drop expected from Pfizer’s vaccine. In fact, the same data show that as of mid-February, when 90 percent of vulnerable Israelis were fully vaccinated, more people are being hospitalized each day for severe COVID-19 infections than they were before vaccinations began.

And yet headlines trumpet “Israel’s Early Vaccine Data Offers Hope” or claim Israel’s vaccination campaign offers “A Way Out of the Pandemic.”

Meanwhile, ostensibly scientific podcasts and tweeters bark and tout the Israeli data in the same euphoric tone. They ignore the lockdown which, by itself, easily explains the modest downturn, and fail to mention that, according to Pfizer, we should be expecting virtual eradication of the disease among vaccinated people. Does anyone see 95 percent effectiveness in these data?

I hope the vaccines work. And I think they do. But if they don’t work as well as initially claimed, or take longer to kick in, or work best only in some groups, that is typical. Trials run by pharmaceutical companies always overstate benefits, under-report harms, and offer an unreachable ideal. This is well known.

If the vaccine isn’t working as we all hoped then say it, deal with it, and make sure everyone knows it. We’ll get to herd immunity. It just may take more than vaccination. It may also take distancing, masking, natural immunity, and wise public health decisions.

That’s fine. And individuals will still take whatever risks they choose for themselves. But it is deeply unsafe to claim the vaccine works better, or quicker, or more completely than it does. That is a perfect recipe for unnecessary risk, a complete loss of faith in the scientific community, and a boost to the vapid anti-vaxxer nonsense.

Let us not pretend. Let us be scientists. The COVID-19 vaccines may not be what we were hoping for. That’s OK. What’s not OK is for enthusiasm to replace evidence.

Daniel Hopkins is a physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com 

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