Coronavirus: 'Very good news' as Israel's vaccine rollout suggests Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine works against UK variant

The first vaccine to be rolled out in New Zealand appears to work just as well against the more infectious UK strain of the virus, based on real-world data coming out of Israel.

The Middle Eastern nation leads the world in terms of vaccinating its population, with three-quarters already having received at least one dose of the vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech. The aim is to have everyone (excluding those living in areas governed by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas) vaccinated by the end of March.

Israel struck a deal with the vaccine's manufacturer to supply real-time data on the rollout, and the initial findings are promising. Researchers tested 600,000 people who've received the vaccine 600,000 who hadn't yet out of the country of 9 million.

"There was a 94 percent reduction in the rate of symptomatic infection and a 92 percent decrease in the rate of serious illness compared to 600,000 similar [subjects] who were not vaccinated," Clalit Health Services said in a statement.

"Vaccine efficacy is maintained in all age groups, including those aged 70."

These figures are close to what Pfizer and BioNTech reported in their phase three trial involving about 40,000 people. The testing was also done only seven days after the second dose - protection is stronger from about 14 days. 

The number of cases being reported each day in Israel has halved in the past month, as has the daily death toll - despite the more infectious (and perhaps more deadly) UK variant of the virus fast becoming the predominant local strain. In January it accounted for nearly half of all cases.

"As I understand most of the strains that are found in Israel at this point are of the B.1.1.7 variant, George Washington University health professor Leana Wen told CNN.

"Seeing this level of effectiveness, even in a population that has such a high level of that B.1.1.7 variant, is very good news."

So far 5414 Israelis have lost their lives in the pandemic. 

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, known as tozinameran and sold under the brand name Cominarty, is so far only recommended for use in people 16 and over. Trials on children - who aren't as badly affected by COVID-19 as adults - are underway, with results expected mid-year. A spate of deaths in elderly patients who received the vaccine in Norway was later deemed to be unrelated. 

Clalit's research is ongoing.

"The publication of preliminary results at this stage is intended to emphasise to the unvaccinated population that the vaccine is highly effective and prevents serious morbidity," Clalit said.

While Israel's vaccine rollout has been the fastest in the world, it hasn't included those living in the West Bank and Gaza, who've been left to source their own vaccines. In the latest spat between the Palestinian and Israeli governments, the former has accused the latter of blocking shipments of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine. 

Israel says the Palestinian National Authority is responsible for its own vaccine rollout, while Palestine and human rights organisations have said Israel has a duty as the occupying power to ensure vaccines are made available to everyone. 

Despite this, Palestine has so far reported a lower per capita rate of cases and deaths than Israel.