“I expect the citizens of Israel to vaccinate, and in order to ensure that, I would like to serve as a personal example,” Netanyahu said as workers unloaded the cargo containers behind him. He added, “We are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Netanyahu could be the first leader of a country to get a jab against the coronavirus, and his inoculation would come at a time when officials around the world are looking to boost public confidence in several such vaccines, developed on a crash basis.
But his decision to go to the head of the queue highlights questions that many countries are facing about whether it is ethical for leaders to be vaccinated ahead of those at greater risk or on the front lines of health care. Are political leaders rightly considered essential workers? Will their inoculation, if publicized, help counter vaccine skepticism?
Research and testing of the vaccines, which traditionally take years, have been telescoped down to months. While vaccine experts emphasize that this process has been rigorous in the United States and Europe, they worry that the rapid timeline will add to the vaccine distrust that already hinders inoculation programs in many countries, including Israel.
“Skepticism is going to be an issue because the development was so rapid,” said Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians and a professor of epidemiology at Hebrew University-Hadassah.
In the United States, former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have said they are willing to be inoculated in a public setting to show their confidence in the new vaccines. But the three men said they would not want to go before higher-risk populations were inoculated. “I promise you that when it’s been made for people who are less at risk, I will be taking it,” Obama said during a radio interview.
In Russia, the Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin will not get the Russian-developed vaccine while it’s still in the trial phase, though it has been rolled out for teachers, medical workers and the military. The ruler of Dubai, one of the statelets that makes up the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Rashid Maktoum, said last month he had received a vaccine made by China’s Sinopharm Group. (President Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson both had coronavirus infections and presumably have antibodies providing them some degree of acquired immunity.)
The vaccine shipment to Israel from Brussels on Wednesday was the first of several, which are expected to deliver up to 4 million doses by the end of the month.
Netanyahu said he anticipates final approval within days from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Israel’s Ministry of Health. The vials delivered by DHL were whisked away to super-cold storage facilities at a Tel Aviv pharmaceutical plant to await the start of the nationwide vaccine program.
Israeli officials have told hospitals and health plans to get ready to begin widespread vaccinations and set Dec. 27 as the start date, although the government has not yet produced a final priority plan for delivering the shots.
Netanyahu’s announcement that he would be the first to take the vaccine was met with mixed reactions in Israel. Some political commentators and health experts said the 71-year-old leader could be an effective role model for elderly Israelis, who are among those most at risk of infection.
“It is important in my opinion to set an example,” Tal Schneider, a political correspondent for Globes. “People are anxious. They know how health-conscious his family is.”
But Levine said Netanyahu risks politicizing the vaccine program in Israel, which has so far avoided the kind of polarization that has hindered public health messaging in the United States.
“Instead of saying, ‘I will be first, it’s about me,’ say, ‘We will be first’ and stand there with [political rival] Benny Gantz,” Levine said. “Or have the entire cabinet get vaccinated on the same day or every member of the Knesset.”
Moreover, public health officials will need to craft an education campaign that goes beyond political figures. In the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, where noncompliance with pandemic restrictions has been high and infection rates have soared, their own religious leaders will have to show the vaccine is worth getting.
“They will not follow Netanyahu. They will not follow Professor Levine. They will follow their rabbis,” Levine said.
Some commentators were quick to accuse Netanyahu of exploiting the long-awaited arrival of the vaccine doses to boost his image as the coalition government he leads teeters on the brink of collapse, and the prospect looms of new elections within months.
Social media critics blasted the prime minister for turning the vaccine launch into a photo op in which he bragged of how many phone calls he’s had with Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla.
“Pump the brakes on the self-congratulations,” one Israeli tweeted in response to Netanyahu’s post on the event. “You’re the only one to hold a reception for a shipment coming off of a plane.”
Israel is now facing the possibility of a third national lockdown since the pandemic began this year. After initially taming the rapid spread of covid-19 cases, coronavirus infections have threatened to spiral out of control each time schools have reopened and restrictions have been eased on restaurants and shops.
A shutdown during September holidays slowed the spread. With infections on the rise again, another round of restrictions is being considered as the country readies this week for Hanukkah, typically a time of festive gatherings.