Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday vowed Israel would ramp up its vaccine drive, reaching a target of administering 170,000 shots a day, as a new batch of hundreds of thousands of doses of Pfizer’s immunizations touched down in Tel Aviv.
Netanyahu traveled to Ben-Gurion Airport to welcome the Pfizer-BioNTech shipment, which came as part of a deal Israel clinched with the US biotech company to move up its deliveries from February.
Planned weekly shipments of similar size are expected to deliver another million doses to the country by the end of the month, and 10 million doses by March. Israel on Thursday also received over 100,000 vaccines from Moderna, with another delivery expected early this week.
“Next Sunday, another huge shipment will arrive and we will begin vaccinating the next group, those over 50,” said Netanyahu on the tarmac.
“The health minister and I agreed that starting today, we will increase the pace to 170,000 shots a day. This is a global record,” added the prime minister.
The next shipment to Israel had originally been set to arrive only in February, and authorities had in recent days wound down first-dose vaccinations due to an expected shortage, to allow all those awaiting second shots to get them on time, 21 days after the first.
But Netanyahu announced Thursday that Pfizer had agreed to send millions of additional doses to Israel, which will serve as a “model country” for the pharmaceutical giant, offering statistical data on the vaccine’s effectiveness.
Welcoming the start of the new stage in the campaign, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said Sunday that 1,817,000 people had been vaccinated in Israel so far, out of a population of 9.29 million.
The number is by far the highest vaccination rate in the world. The Health Ministry has prioritized at-risk groups and people over 60, with more than 70 percent of Israelis in that age group having now received the first shot.
Netanyahu became the first Israeli to get the second dose of the vaccine Saturday, just as he inaugurated the first dose, and declared that all Israelis could be fully immunized in around two months.
With the new deal, health officials now expect to restart first-dose shots on Wednesday, Channel 12 reported.
They hope to start vaccinating teaching staff within days, and to move on to all Israelis over 50 very soon. The report said officials believe that if vaccine shipments arrive as planned, vaccination will be opened for the entire population within two or three weeks.
The frenzied inoculation drive comes as Israel sees several thousand new virus cases diagnosed daily, amid the third nationwide lockdown in Israel since the start of the pandemic.
Over 1,000 people are currently in serious condition from the virus, the highest level since the first outbreak in March. The death toll since the start of the pandemic is 3,651.
On Saturday, the Health Ministry said that four cases of the highly contagious South African coronavirus strain had been identified in Israel, the first time the mutated variant had been discovered in the country. A British strain that is also particularly contagious is already believed to be prevalent in the Israeli population.
The Health Ministry has emphasized that like the British variant, there is no evidence the South African variant causes more severe illness, even though it is more contagious.