More than six weeks after Israel began a COVID-19 vaccine rollout that has left the rest of the world trailing in its wake, public health experts are breathing a sigh of relief as the effects finally seem to be kicking in.
Early this week, with the country reporting a clear and sustained drop in the number of people age 60 and older who are severely ill, experts became confident they were seeing the effects of the vaccine. People over 60 were prioritized in the initial stages of Israel’s vaccine rollout, so this was where the signal was expected to show up in national COVID-19 statistics.
“We say with caution, the magic has started,” tweeted data scientist Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, on Feb. 1, noting that COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and severe illness were all falling among the over-60s.
What’s more, follow-up studies conducted by one of Israel’s largest HMOs, Maccabi Healthcare Services, suggest that Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, which has been used for most of the shots given so far, is working almost as well in the real world as it did in clinical trials, with over 90% efficacy after two doses. This was not a guarantee: Drugs and vaccines may perform slightly differently outside of the controlled bounds of clinical testing.
That’s good news for the US and other countries that hope to emulate Israel’s success in delivering COVID-19 vaccines to their populations. But the data emerging from Israel also reveals the challenges that lie ahead.
Israeli experts interviewed by BuzzFeed News had hoped that these positive results would show up more quickly. They attributed the delay in large part to the fact that the Middle Eastern nation has been battling the highly transmissible B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant first seen in the UK — now thought to account for more than 70% of Israeli cases. And while both Pfizer and Moderna have reported that their vaccines effectively block the B.1.1.7 variant, other variants first identified in South Africa and Brazil seem less susceptible to current vaccines, so could undermine further progress if they or new variants with similar mutations become dominant.
Meanwhile, Israel has been criticized by human rights organizations for not extending its vaccination program to the occupied Palestinian territories. And the rollout has been slower among Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel and ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities — which is worrying because these are the groups that have been hit hardest by COVID-19.
That concerns health experts watching the Israeli rollout from the US, because it’s happening despite the fact that the Israeli government launched a big communications effort, involving religious and other community leaders, to try to address vaccine hesitancy among Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities.
In the US, Black Americans have been disproportionately killed and sickened by COVID-19, and are already falling behind in the US vaccination campaign. And while Black Americans have good reasons to distrust the medical establishment given a legacy of racism within the healthcare system, there’s been nothing in the US like Israel’s communications push to convince skeptical groups of the benefits of getting vaccinated, Peter Hotez, a leading vaccine researcher at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told BuzzFeed News.
Hotez fears a terrible toll among Black communities if vaccine rollout remains low and more dangerous coronavirus variants take hold. “We’re losing a generation of mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters,” he said.
Israel owes its rapid vaccine rollout to a healthcare system that requires every citizen to be a member of one of four HMOs, which collectively operate clinics almost everywhere in the small, densely populated country. Having secured vaccine supplies from both Pfizer and Moderna, the nation was able to use this solid healthcare infrastructure to push ahead with vaccination faster than any other: As of Wednesday, Israel had given roughly 59 shots per 100 people in the country, while the US had given almost 10.
The rules for who is eligible for vaccines in Israel have also been much simpler than in the US, where decisions have been left up to the states based on factors including age, occupational exposure to the virus, and preexisting medical conditions. Instead, Israel prioritized older people, encouraged everyone to get shots, and opened call centers to streamline appointments. And even with its existing infrastructure, it opened massive outdoor immunization centers.
“They made it very easy to sign up,” said Ann Blake, a colleague of Hotez’s at Baylor who trained as a doctor and in public health in Israel. “If there is vaccine left over at the end of the day, you have clinic secretaries blasting text messages.”
Israel’s vaccine rollout leads the world
The US, with a much more fragmented healthcare system and many people with no health insurance, faces huge challenges matching Israel’s vaccination drive. Blake argued that the nation needs to learn from what has worked in Israel, opening more huge vaccination centers and simplifying the rules for vaccine eligibility.
“We need to be opening stadiums across the country,” she said. “We are starting to do that. We need to be doing that on a massive scale”
But Israel has been less effective at controlling the spread of the virus. The start of the vaccination campaign, on Dec. 19, came in the early stages a big surge in cases driven by the now-dominant B.1.1.7 variant. A nationwide lockdown followed on Dec. 27, making it difficult for scientists to distinguish the protective effects of the vaccine from the reduced transmission resulting from the lockdown.
“With all these strong winds pushing things in different directions, it’s hard to discern the effect of the vaccine,” Uri Shalit, a data scientist at the Technion in Haifa who specializes in studying healthcare, told BuzzFeed News.
As recently as last week, Shalit and other experts were still looking anxiously for differences between trends in this lockdown compared to the previous one that ended in October. But by this week, it was clear that Israel was seeing a decline in the number of older people with severe COVID-19 that began even as severe cases continued to rise among younger people.
Israelis with severe COVID-19, by age group
As the charts above and below show, the decline in severe cases began in mid-January, shortly after a steep rise in the number of older Israelis getting their second vaccine shots. Right now, more than 75% of the over-60s have had two shots, although the increase has slowed in recent days — to the alarm of some scientists. “You’ve exhausted the early adopters,” Yaniv Erlich, a computer scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, who has been tracking data on COVID-19, told BuzzFeed News.
Percentage of Israelis vaccinated, by age group
Still, follow-up studies by Israel’s HMOs are adding to the hopeful picture. In an early research paper posted online on Jan. 29 that has not yet been peer-reviewed, researchers with Maccabi Healthcare Services followed up with more than 350,000 Israeli adults 13–24 days after they had their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, estimating that it was 51% effective in preventing infection.
And in so far unpublished data, the Times of Israel reported last week that Maccabi researchers had found the vaccine was 92% effective after two doses, based on a comparison of 163,000 fully vaccinated Maccabi patients with an unvaccinated group. If these results stand up, it means the Pfizer vaccine is performing almost as well in the real world as it did in clinical trials.
Erlich and others warned that these results may overestimate the vaccine’s effects. One issue is that Israeli couples have typically gotten vaccinated together, giving additional protection within families that doesn’t occur with volunteers in a clinical trial.
But Cyrille Cohen, an immunologist and vice dean of life sciences at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, was delighted with the reports. “It is on a par with what was predicted,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I’m always cautious, but so far this is very good news.”
Less encouraging are the lower rates of vaccination in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities and in cities with large Arab Israeli populations. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews are skeptical of vaccines and oppose restrictions to limit the spread of the coronavirus — highlighted by the attendance of thousands of mourners at the funeral of a prominent rabbi in Jerusalem on Jan. 31, in defiance of the country’s current lockdown.
And by the end of January, less than 70% of the over-60s in Nazareth, sometimes called the “Arab capital” of Israel, had been given their initial vaccine dose — lagging well behind the national average. In Nazareth and other Israeli cities with large Arab populations, the low uptake of vaccines is thought to be linked to wider distrust of Israel’s government.
Another contentious issue is vaccination for Palestinians in the occupied territories. Israel has maintained that under the Oslo Accords, health is the responsibility of the Palestinian National Authority, which reportedly plans to buy 100,000 doses of the Sputnik V vaccine, developed by Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute.
Pressured by groups including Human Rights Watch, which argues that the Fourth Geneva Convention requires Israel to provide medical supplies, Israel has begun to send a small number of vaccines to the Palestinians. The move has also been spurred by concerns that a regular flow of unvaccinated people across checkpoints — tens of thousands of Palestinians work in Israel — will undermine the nation’s own vaccination drive.
The gaps in Israel’s vaccine rollout mean that even the world’s leader in COVID-19 immunization will have elements of its population where the coronavirus is still freely circulating. That includes children: Pfizer’s vaccine is currently only authorized for children 16 and older. “We will not vaccinate kids under the age of 16 until we get results from the clinical trials being done by Pfizer,” said Cohen, who sits on the committee advising the Israeli Ministry of Health on COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials.
As long as the virus is circulating, there is the potential for new variants, some of which may evade current vaccines, to emerge. Pfizer and Moderna are both testing options to respond to the variants, including additional booster shots or entirely new vaccine formulations. But that means that some social distancing measures will likely continue to be necessary, especially if emerging variants cause future coronavirus surges.
This worries Hagai Rossman, a researcher in Segal’s group at the Weizmann Institute, who fears that there will be poor compliance with further stringent restrictions. “The public will not accept another hard lockdown after the vaccination campaign,” Rossman said.
gas prices reach new high | CTV News – CTV News Toronto
Gas prices have reached yet another new record after rising six cents per litre overnight.
As of midnight the average price of a litre of fuel across the Greater Toronto Area is now 208.9 cents per litre, according to Canadians for Affordable Energy President Dan McTeague.
The latest jump means that gas prices have now risen 11 cents per litre since Friday, with no real relief in sight due to supply shortages brought about by Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine and the international sanctions that have been imposed a result.
“When you look at the fundamentals, supply and demand for diesel and for gasoline going into the summer driving season, not only is it low or critically low and that is one of the main reasons why prices are going up but the second factor is the Canadian dollar,” McTeague told CP24 last week. “It continues to show weakness despite the fact that in the old good old days when oil was $100 a barrel we would be on par with the U.S. dollar. The fact that we’re not is costing you 33 cents a litre.”
Gas prices have risen by about 60 per cent since last May, when drivers were paying around $1.30 per litre to fill up.
Musk says Twitter legal team told him he violated an NDA – The Globe and Mail
Elon Musk on Saturday tweeted that Twitter Inc.’s legal team accused him of violating a non-disclosure agreement by revealing that the sample size for the social media platform’s checks on automated users was 100.
“Twitter legal just called to complain that I violated their NDA by revealing the bot check sample size is 100!” tweeted Mr. Musk, chief executive of electric car maker Tesla Inc.
Mr. Musk on Friday tweeted that his US$44-billion cash deal to take the company private was “temporarily on hold” while he awaited data on the proportion of its fake accounts.
Twitter legal just called to complain that I violated their NDA by revealing the bot check sample size is 100!
This actually happened.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 14, 2022
He said his team would test “a random sample of 100 followers” on Twitter to identify the bots. His response to a question prompted Twitter’s accusation.
When a user asked Mr. Musk to “elaborate on process of filtering bot accounts,” he replied “I picked 100 as the sample size number, because that is what Twitter uses to calculate <5% fake/spam/duplicate.”
Mr. Musk tweeted during the early hours of Sunday that he is yet to see “any” analysis that shows that the social-media company has fake accounts less than 5 per cent.
He later said that, “There is some chance it might be over 90 per cent of daily active users.”
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As interest in electric vehicles soars, experts say they haven't quite hit the mainstream – CBC.ca
When a friend told Seymore Applebaum about the efficiency of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, he was intrigued.
Applebaum, who lives north of Toronto, was in the market for a new car. While safety features were top of mind, the high cost of gasoline couldn’t be ignored.
So in January, he traded in his sedan for a brand-new plug-in hybrid (PHEV), a vehicle that can run on both electricity and gasoline. Applebaum says he can travel almost 50 kilometres on battery power alone — more than enough to get around the city.
On a recent trip downtown, he recalled, “I drove about 45 kilometres … and the only thing I used was the electric motor and the electric battery that runs the car.”
“Normally, on a day like that, [it] would be comparable to $10, $15 of driving cost.”
Automotive industry analysts say rising gas prices have more consumers looking into electrified and electric vehicles (EVs).
Prices at the pump have soared across Canada in recent weeks. Estimates suggest Vancouver could see the country’s highest prices this weekend, potentially hitting $2.34 per litre for regular fuel. According to fuel price tracker GasBuddy, the national average as of Sunday afternoon was just below $1.98 per litre.
“Canadians are motivated by high fuel prices, but they truly believe this is the new normal,” said Peter Hatges, national automotive sector leader for KPMG in Canada, pointing a recent survey by the consulting group.
“When consumers believe it or perceive it to be true, they’re going to modify their behaviour around what kind of vehicles they buy.”
Kevin Roberts, director of industry insights and analytics for U.S.-based online vehicle marketplace CarGurus, told Cross Country Checkup he has seen a similar trend.
“As gas prices went up, interest in electric vehicles went up almost in lockstep with just a couple of days delay for both new and used vehicles,” he said.
But even as interest in electrified cars spikes, experts say too few options — and too high prices — mean they haven’t quite hit the mainstream.
Where consumers in North America favour larger vehicles like SUVs and pickup trucks known for their utility, EVs tend to come in compact or sedan-style models. EV range — and the availability of chargers — are also considerations for many Canadians, said Hatges.
Ramp up production
Big investments into electrification by major automotive makers, however, are beginning to bear fruit.
A greater variety of models and sizes are coming onto the market in the coming years, the analysts say. Battery life is improving too, with several models able to travel more than 400 kilometres on a charge, according to manufacturer estimates.
“It’s absolutely a tipping point,” said Hatges. “I think there’s a confluence of factors that are pointing toward an alternative to the internal combustion engine.”
The big test for consumers will be whether manufacturers can cut prices enough to get customers in the showroom — and EVs on the road — said Grieg Mordue, associate professor and ArcelorMittal chair in advanced manufacturing policy at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.
While a handful of models start below $50,000, many run far north of that figure with some selling for over $100,000.
The sweet spot for Canadian buyers? Between $35,000 and $45,000, says Mordue. Key to hitting that price point is mass production, he added.
“We need production in North America of vehicles at that level, and we need high-volume vehicles — not little, niche vehicles where they sell 10,000 or 15,000 of them a year — because that’s a lot of the vehicles that we have now, Tesla notwithstanding,” Mordue told Checkup.
In April, GM announced a $2-billion investment, with support from the Ontario and federal governments, which will see electric vehicles rolling off assembly lines in Oshawa and Ingersoll, Ont., as early as this year.
Stellantis, which owns brands including Dodge and Jeep, is similarly investing billions into electrification at its Windsor and Brampton, Ont., plants.
Mordue cautions, however, that as plants begin producing electric models, it will take time for them to reach the existing output of gas-powered vehicles.
Focus on fuel efficiency
While interest in EVs may be gearing up, Hatges predicts a shift for gas-powered vehicles too.
“I think you’ll see a strive to make cars lighter, more fuel efficient, even when it comes to electricity,” he said. “Heavy vehicles use more power to power themselves down the road, whether it’s electricity or fuel.”
And as long as gas prices stay high, the market could see a shift from SUVs and trucks — which consumers and manufacturers have favoured in recent years — to gas-sipping models.
“We have a fascination with pickup trucks and SUVs, North Americans do, and there’s a lot of them on the road now…. I don’t see that changing any time soon,” he said.
“But in the medium term or in the immediate term, will you see a shift or reconsideration of cars that are more fuel efficient? I think so. The price in the pump is very, very significant.”
Applebaum touted the flexibility of a plug-in hybrid, saying he doesn’t worry about range at all. And though his PHEV cost more than a comparable non-electrified model, trading in his previous vehicle combined with the fuel savings over three to four years made it affordable, he said.
With gas prices now higher than they were in January, “that’s even more true,” he told Checkup.
Now, he says friends are taking notice.
“They’re saying the next car they purchase will be an electric car.”
Written by Jason Vermes with files from Abby Plener.
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