Israelis receive Covid-19 vaccine at a shopping mall parking lot in Givatayim near Tel Aviv © ABIR SULTAN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

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Coronavirus infections in Israel are soaring among those yet to be vaccinated, straining hospitals and forcing the government to extend a strict lockdown even as the country continues its breakneck vaccination drive.

Close to 2.3m Israelis — out of an adult population of just over 6m — have received their first shot of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, which provides some protection after 10 days of inoculation. Just over 600,000 people have received their second jabs, the government said on Thursday.

But with daily new infections climbing past 10,000 this week and a record 720 deaths so far this month, hospital admissions continue to rise.

The B.1.1.7 Covid-19 variant, first detected in the UK during the autumn, is tied to at least 40 per cent of new infections and the government estimates it will account for the vast majority of new infections by March.

“This lockdown is very much affected by the British mutation,” Yoav Kisch, deputy health minister, told Army Radio. “The numbers we used to see go down at a much faster rate are going down much slower.”

The number of Israelis showing signs of infection dipped marginally, from 9.2 per cent of those tested to 9 per cent, this week. Some experts said that showed Israel could be turning the corner, as long as the current lockdown is carefully enforced.

“That can be considered stabilisation — and hope,” said Arnon Afek, deputy director-general of the Sheba General Hospital, the largest in the country.

Close to 2.3m Israelis have received their first shot of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine © Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

The Jewish state aims to fully inoculate the vast majority of its adult population by mid-March. Until then, warned experts, Israel should brace itself for new infections to stay near record highs, or even rise, as the new strain becomes the dominant mutation in the country.

As the new variant spreads through the unvaccinated population, Israel is deploying the army to rural locations and pushing health maintenance organisations to process more people every day.

“The real test of this vaccination drive will only come a week after we have reached a critical mass of at least 70 per cent of the population receiving their second shot,” said Ido Hadari, director of government relations at Maccabi Healthcare Services, one of four health maintenance organisations that are carrying out the vaccinations.

So far, 80 per cent of people over 60 have received their second shots, and 70 per cent of those between 45 and 60 years of age.

Israel’s experience is a cautionary tale for countries hoping to exit crippling lockdowns quickly on the back of partially completed vaccination drives. Few countries are expected to match Israel’s pace.

At Rambam, one of the largest hospitals in the country, the impact of the new variant is already showing. More than 250 staff members have been forced into isolation since December, when the new variant was first detected in Israel, compared with just 10 between the beginning of the pandemic and last month. Severely and critically ill patients now make up two-thirds of the cases, compared with a quarter previously.

“This is something different,” said Michael Halberthal, chief executive of Rambam. “It’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Experts outside Israel have cautioned against making premature conclusions from the country’s early data. Stephen Evans, professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said there was not enough scientific data to judge what was happening in Israel.

The health ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

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