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COVID-19: Israel urges world to follow its rapid vaccine rollout, but Palestinians are left waiting | World News

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Yuli Edelstein and Benjamin Netanyahu received the first two jabs live on prime-time television last month

Israel’s health minister has urged countries simply to “get out there” if they want to replicate his country’s vaccination success.

Speaking to Sky News, Yuli Edelstein said that expert logistics, early procurement, close co-operation with the manufacturer and Israeli innovation had all been combined to make the country a clear leader in the global vaccination race.

“The faster we get the vaccine into their arms, the less cases we’ll see in our hospitals and, God forbid, deaths,” Mr Edelstein said.

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Yuli Edelstein and Benjamin Netanyahu received the first two jabs live on prime-time television last month

“Get out there. Don’t put a huge station in the middle of your capital and wait for people to come… Try to get it out to – if not to their homes – then at least to their areas; to the suburbs, to their towns,” Mr Edelstein said, confirming that he had spoken to Britain’s health secretary, Matt Hancock.

It’s just over three weeks since Mr Edelstein sat alongside his boss, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to receive the first two jabs live on prime-time television.

Since that point, the country has been widely praised for its swift vaccine rollout but also criticised because Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have not been given access to the Israeli-procured vaccine.

The health minister sought to explain both in an interview with Sky News.

For Prime Minister Netanyahu, who faces yet another election the coming months, the vaccine programme is a mission beyond any other.

He is calling it “Operation Back to Life” and he has put himself front and centre of a race to vaccinate the whole Israeli population over 16 by the end of March.

The country procured the Pfizer vaccine early on and in huge quantities at a high price.

Supplies are regular because the country has become a model for Pfizer to test the vaccine’s efficacy at scale.

Despite having been approved by regulators around the world, none of the vaccines has yet had its efficacy tested on a mass scale.

In a deal which Mr Netanyahu claims he personally stuck with Pfizer’s CEO, Israel agreed to provide Pfizer with detailed data from vaccinated patients in exchange for priority delivery of the dose – which they had proved to Pfizer could be distributed fast.

“In recent weeks I have held 17 conversations with my friend, Pfizer chairman and CEO, Albert Bourla,” Mr Netanyahu said last week.

“We will be the first country in the world to emerge from the coronavirus… As part of the agreement with Pfizer, we decided that Israel will be a global model state for the rapid vaccination of an entire country.

“To this end, we have brought forward the arrival of the vaccines and also increased their number.

“Israel will share with Pfizer and with the entire world the statistical data that will help develop strategies for defeating the coronavirus,” he said.

Mr Edelstein said: “Right now, I have this picture of two racing cars in a race. One is definitely the vaccine.

“We are moving forward very fast. We already have more than a million and a half Israelis vaccinated throughout the country.

Israel has been widely praised for its swift vaccine roll-out
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In central Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, a huge complex of tents serves as one of many vaccination centres

“The vast majority of them are people over 60. That was our criteria. Amongst those who are under 60, there are medical teams, police officers, the first responders and so on, so forth.

“On the other hand, unfortunately, I have to say that we are part of this whole outburst of the disease again. And we have numbers that are really terrible in the last couple of days,” he said.

“We are a country of nine million people, so the numbers are really huge.”

Israel currently has 63,440 active cases which represents double the number a week ago. A total of 3,645 people have died and a further 1,400 are in hospital, 837 of them critically ill.

In central Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, a huge complex of tents serves as one of many vaccination centres.

Around the block, and around the clock, enthusiastic citizens have been queuing for their jab every day for the past three weeks.

Israeli health minister Yuli Edelstein says country's need to ‘get out there’ if they want to replicate his country’s vaccination success
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Israeli health minister Yuli Edelstein says countries need to ‘get out there’ if they want to replicate his country’s vaccination success

But logistics and technical innovation have proved to be vital components too.

Mr Edelstein said: “You know, it’s not a system, as we see in some countries, of a huge stadium with hundreds of booths there.

“People sometimes have difficulty, especially when we’re talking about the elderly, to get there. In this case, it’s really a door delivery for many of them. I’m slightly exaggerating, but it’s close to it.”

He continued: “Part of the problem used to be that the sets of the vaccine are 1,000 vaccines. We managed to use Israeli technology to split it into smaller sets, with Pfizer’s approval.

“So now sometimes our paramedics or nurses are able to travel with a set of 50 to a very distant point without wasting one single shot.”

The country has 335 “drive-through” vaccination centres which operate extended hours.

At one, in the northern city of Haifa, doctor and recipient Natalie Roynik was in, jabbed and out in minutes without leaving the driving seat.

“As you can see it’s working perfectly. I just came here and here I am. I am just getting inside,” she said as she drove into the purpose-built tent.

Dr Ali Abed Rabbo, Palestinian director of preventative health, says Israel should provide the vaccine
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Dr Ali Abed Rabbo, Palestinian director of preventative health, says Israel should provide the vaccine

Yet alongside this undeniable success, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians do not have access to any vaccine yet.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority has its headquarters, Dr Ali Abed Rabbo, director of preventative health at the Palestinian Ministry of Health, believes Israel is obliged to provide the vaccine.

He told Sky News: “As an occupying force, I think and I believe that Israel had the commitment to procure the vaccine for the Palestinian population because they are the occupying force.”

However he and other sources have confirmed to Sky News that the Palestinian Authority has not formally asked Israel to provide the vaccine to them. A Palestinian request for help from Israel is politically very sensitive.

Under the 4th Geneva Convention, occupying forces are responsible for providing healthcare to the population of the occupied area.

Most states as well as the United Nations Security Council, the United Nations General Assembly, the International Court of Justice, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, consider Israel to be an occupying power.

However, the Oslo Peace Accords of the 1990s between Israel and the Palestinians (which were supposed to be temporary; a roadmap leading to a Palestinian state) gave the Palestinians responsibility for healthcare.

Amnesty International has condemned Israel over the issue.

Saleh Higazi, Amnesty’s deputy regional director, said: “Israel’s COVID-19 vaccine programme highlights the institutionalised discrimination that defines the Israeli government’s policy towards Palestinians.

“While Israel celebrates a record-setting vaccination drive, millions of Palestinians living under Israeli control in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip will receive no vaccine or have to wait much longer.

“There could hardly be a better illustration of how Israeli lives are valued above Palestinian ones.”

Israel's vaccine roll-out programe is continuing apace
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Israel has been widely praised for its swift vaccine rollout

But Israel’s health minister told Sky News: “They have to learn how to take care of themselves.

“I think that we’ve been helping our Palestinian neighbours from the very early stages of this crisis, including medical equipment, including medicine, including advice, including supplies.

“I don’t think that there’s anyone in this country, whatever his or her views might be, that can imagine that I would be taking a vaccine from the Israeli citizen, and, with all the goodwill, give it to our neighbours.”

But he added: “We do understand that it’s in Israeli interests that there will be less cases on the Palestinian side.

“Many of the Palestinians are working here in Israel. You can’t divide the two neatly and say, you know, ‘they can deal with it themselves; it’s not our issue’. It is our issue.”

Asked if Israel would provide the vaccine to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza once its population is vaccinated, he said: “We definitely will consider that but as I’ve said, I sincerely hope that by that time part of their population will be vaccinated by different vaccines that they are trying to purchase. If any other help will be needed, we will offer.”

The minister of health for the Palestinian Authority, Dr Mai Al-Kaileh, announced at the weekend that the vaccine, on order from four different companies, would likely arrive during the first quarter of the year.

By that stage, if Prime Minister Netanyahu meets his pledge, every Israeli over 16 will have been vaccinated.

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Boris Johnson speaks to President Joe Biden in phone call – with hopes of ‘deepening longstanding alliance’ with US | Politics News

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Boris Johnson has spoken to Joe Biden. Pic: Twitter/ Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson has spoken to the newly inaugurated US President Joe Biden in a Saturday evening phone call to Washington DC.

After the call, the prime minister tweeted: “Great to speak to President Joe Biden this evening.

“I look forward to deepening the longstanding alliance between our two countries as we drive a green and sustainable recovery from COVID-19.”

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Boris Johnson and Joe Biden will meet in Cornwall later this year for the G7. Pic: Andrew Parsons/ No 10 Downing Street

A Downing Street spokesperson said: “The prime minister spoke to Joe Biden, president of the United States, this evening.

“He congratulated the president on his inauguration and the two leaders looked forward to deepening the close alliance between our nations.

“The prime minister warmly welcomed the president’s decision to re-join the Paris Agreement on climate change, as well as the World Health Organization and the COVAX programme to ensure equitable access for vaccines.

“They noted the significant challenges facing the world during the pandemic, but also the unparalleled opportunities to build back better and greener together. The Prime Minister praised President Biden’s early action on tackling climate change and commitment to reach Net Zero by 2050.

“Building on the UK and US’ long history of cooperation in security and defence, the leaders re-committed to the NATO alliance and our shared values in promoting human rights and protecting democracy.

“They also discussed the benefits of a potential free trade deal between our two countries, and the Prime Minister reiterated his intention to resolve existing trade issues as soon as possible.

“The leaders looked forward to meeting in person as soon as the circumstances allow, and to working together through the G7, G20 and COP26 this year.”

Despite the so-called “special relationship”, Mr Johnson is not the first world leader to speak to the new commander-in-chief, with Mr Biden phoning Mexico’s Manuel Lopez Obrador and Canada’s Justin Trudeau on Friday.

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COVID-19: Scientists cast doubt over claim UK variant is more deadly | UK News

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COVID-19: Scientists cast doubt over claim UK variant is more deadly | UK News

Scientists have cast doubt over claims the COVID-19 variant first identified in the UK is more deadly than the original virus.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the British public on Friday there was “some evidence that the new variant may be associated with a higher degree of mortality”.

Early evidence suggested the variant could be about 30% more deadly, the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said, alongside Mr Johnson.

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UK COVID variant ‘more deadly’ strain

It followed a report by the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG), which concluded there is “a realistic possibility” that the new variant “is associated with an increased risk of death”.

But the report warned there were “limitations” in the data “that it may not be possible to resolve”.

Dr Mike Tildesley, who advises the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), said it was “possibly a little bit presumptuous” of the prime minister to present the findings “in the very early stages”.

As more data is collected over the next two weeks, it is possible that the variant may prove to be less deadly than the original virus, he added.

Dr Tildesley told Sky News: “It’s somewhat unclear that this 30% is really reflective of what we are seeing.

“I would certainly approach this is with an element of caution at the moment.”

He added: “[The data] could continue to reflect what we are seeing already, that it’s more transmissible and more deadly, but it’s possible as we get more data that it could go the other way.”

Dr Tildesley suggested the government may have decided to present the early data to encourage people to follow the COVID restrictions.

The UK recorded another 1,348 coronavirus deaths on Saturday, taking the total to more than 97,000.

“We are seeing our hospitals still under severe pressure,” Dr Tildesley added.

“We are seeing sadly record number of deaths in the last week per day which is really worrying.

“Maybe it serves as a reminder to all of us that we need to keep adhering to the rules.

“Even if the data are a little bit uncertain right now, that might be one good reason to report on this a little bit earlier – as a reminder to people that we still need to batten down the hatches and do what we have been doing.”

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Campaign launched amid ‘very precarious’ situation

At a Downing Street news conference on Friday, Sir Patrick said with the initial variant, 10 out of 1,000 people over the age of 60 who were infected would be expected to die.

With the UK variant, the available data suggests that 13 or 14 people out of 1,000 from the same age group would die, he added.

Professor Calum Semple, a member of SAGE and NERVTAG, said it was a “small but important change”.

“The headline figure of 30% is dramatic but it’s not particularly helpful because the actual risk of death for any individual is actually quite small,” he told Sky News.

“If you are a person in your 80s and you’ve got multiple underlying problems, then yes the risk is much higher.

“If you’re a 20-year-old, the risk is infinitesimally small to start with so you won’t notice an increase in risk.”

Professor Calum Semple says that Christmas mixing and the new variant are pushing up the numbers of COVID cases and deaths
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Professor Calum Semple said suggestions the variant is 30% more deadly ‘is not particularly helpful’

Prof Semple defended the government’s decision to present the mortality data, saying ministers would have been accused of a cover-up had they not revealed the findings to the public.

“I think it’s really good that science and policy are on the same page in being transparent, sharing data early, and making people aware of the situation,” he said.

“And perhaps if that’s been used to reinforce the importance of getting vaccinated and importance of self-isolating if you feel unwell, and not breaching regulations, then that’s a good use of the data.

“From my position, the data is early. We cannot be completely confident in it. In fact, we’ve said in the reports that we have low confidence in it.

“But we would be criticised far more if we didn’t share this information and three weeks later we say; ‘Oh by the way, this is happening and we knew about it three weeks ago but didn’t tell you’.”

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Vallance: ‘Virus is with us forever’

The co-author of the NERVTAG report, Professor Graham Medle, said it clear the new variant is more transmissible than the original.

However, he acknowledged that it remains an “open question” whether it is more likely to lead to death.

“The question about whether it is more dangerous in terms of mortality, I think, is still open. There is evidence it is more dangerous but this is a very dangerous virus,” he told Radio 4’s Today programme.

“In terms of making the situation worse, it is not a game-changer. It is a very bad thing that is slightly worse.”

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COVID-19: Lebanon’s health service close to collapse with case numbers beyond ‘wildest predictions’ | World News

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The director of Lebanon's largest coronavirus hospital Dr Firas Abiad said the government decision to relax restrictions over Christmas and New Year has led to a huge increase in cases and healthcare is on the verge of collapse

The head of Lebanon’s main coronavirus hospital has said the country’s health system is close to collapse – with not enough beds, drugs, oxygen, ventilators or staff.

In a stark interview with Sky News, Dr Firas Abiad said the government decision to relax coronavirus restrictions over a few fateful days at Christmas and New Year has led to a huge increase in cases and deaths over the past few weeks.

He allowed our cameras into the casualty department and the intensive care unit of the Rafic Hariri University Hospital in Beirut to see the pressure he and his staff are under.

Dr Abiad said all hospitals were reporting full, or almost full, intensive care units – and many have patients stuck in emergency wards, waiting for a bed.

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Dr Abiad said the government has thrown the healthcare system ‘into an abyss’

“Some patients are not able to find a bed and there’s been several cases where patients have died in their homes,” he said.

“If you look at the sharp rise in cases you see that Lebanon is really seeing unprecedented COVID numbers which is even beyond our wildest predictions.

“The number of daily new cases has almost quadrupled since where we were almost a month ago,” said Dr Abiad.

“At the same time we’ve seen that the number of deaths has also tripled and the number of patients in ICU has gone up by almost 100%.”

On 17 December, four days before a nationwide lockdown was due to end, the government decided to ease a series of restrictions for the holiday period.

Under intense pressure from businesses, they allowed nightclubs, bars and restaurants to open at 50% capacity while urging people to wear masks and maintain social distancing.

But videos on social media over Christmas and New Year showed packed clubs and bars. No attempts were made to crackdown on the violations.

“It’s clear that those were catastrophic [decisions] and what has happened is they’ve thrown the whole healthcare system of the country into a major abyss,” said Dr Abiad.

In the casualty department, the pressures are obvious. There is a shortage of beds, drugs, oxygen, ventilators and staff.

It is a relatively modern hospital but it looks sparse, except for the number of patients.

A nurse strokes a patient’s head.

“I am passing out… I am passing out,” he tells the nurse.

“No, no! You’re doing very well. Don’t be scared. Your oxygen is good. 99%. Honestly it’s very good,” she reassures him.

In the next bed is 53-year-old Aida Derawi. She first began to feel unwell 15 days ago. Her family had hoped she would recover at home, but this week things got worse.

“Yesterday I felt I couldn’t take it anymore,” she says. “My back and lungs were aching. My kids took me around to find a hospital but not a single one would accept me.”

Eventually space was found and she is improving slowly.

Nurse Hussein al Khazn tells us that in this wave of the virus, the patients are no longer predominately elderly.

The director of Lebanon's largest coronavirus hospital Dr Firas Abiad said the government decision to relax restrictions over a few fateful days at Christmas and New Year has led to a huge increase in cases and healthcare is on the verge of collapse. Pic: Red Cross volunteer Waad Abdulaad
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Red Cross volunteer Waad Abdulaad is very much on Lebanon’s frontline

“Much younger now,” he says. “Before we had 50, 60-year-old patients.

“Now it’s 20, 25, 30-year-old patients and they’re very, very critical – all of them.”

On the other side of the city, we’re given access to the Lebanese Red Cross coordination centre.

In a well-organised control room, a team of volunteers is juggling telephone calls from patients’ families with radio calls to the ambulance teams on the ground.

“So, she’s ill with coronavirus?” a volunteer asks down the line. “So she’s got shortness of breath?”

A radio message is sent to one of the dispatch teams.

“We’re dispatched to a patient that tested positive for COVID and she’s currently suffering from desaturation and vomiting,” volunteer medic Waad Abdulaal says from the passenger seat of the ambulance.

“So we’re going to go ahead, assess her and see if there’s a need to take her to the hospital.”

Lebanon was already in a critical state economically.

Years of accumulative economic mismanagement has led to a slow collapse in every sector of society.

That was then exacerbated by the pandemic and the devastating port explosion last year.

The director of Lebanon's largest coronavirus hospital Dr Firas Abiad said the government decision to relax restrictions over Christmas and New Year has led to a huge increase in cases and healthcare is on the verge of collapse
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Ambulance crews carry an 80-year-old woman down a flight of stairs in darkness due to another power cut

Up several flights of a stairwell, in darkness because of yet another power cut, the Red Cross team reaches its patient.

Madame Imad is 80 years old. She tested positive last week and her diabetes is complicating her condition. She needs to go to hospital, but there is an issue finding a bed for her.

The positivity rate across the country this past week has been at 21% (the 14-day rolling average).

That means the community spread of the virus is out of control. It needs to be at 5% before there is any chance of regaining a grip of the crisis.

Calls are made and they think space has been found at a hospital nearby.

Madame Imad is carried down the stairs as her daughter Sophie looks straight into our camera and pleads: “Show them that there are people dying before they reach the hospital.”

The elderly woman did make it to the hospital. But she was sent home again. There were no beds. Her family has told us her condition this weekend has worsened.

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