Israel COVID-19 'R' reproduction number dips below 1 in first since vaccine drive

A woman receives a vaccination against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a temporary healthcare maintenance organisation (HMO) centre amid Israel's third national lockdown, at an underground parking lot in Givatayim Mall
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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The estimated COVID-19 reproduction number in Israel has dipped below 1 for the first time since the country launched the world's fastest vaccination drive, suggesting the pandemic may be starting to recede, the government said on Thursday.

An "R" number above 1 indicates infections will grow at an exponential rate, while below 1 points to their eventual halt.

Israel's "R" number hit 1.3 on Dec. 11. It began vaccinating citizens the following week. With contagion surging, on Dec. 27 it imposed a third national lockdown - which is still in effect.

"Are we seeing the light? We see a chink in the blinds," Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch told Channel 13 TV after Israel logged an "R" number of 0.99. "We have achieved a halt, but we have achieved a halt at high levels of morbidity."

He credited the lockdown and the vaccines - now administered to more than a quarter of Israel's 9 million population - but added that vaccines had "mainly reduced serious morbidity, not necessarily the number of carriers".

The reduction would have been more significant were it not for the presence of the especially contagious British variant of the coronavirus, Kisch said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is up for re-election in March, has said the vaccines could allow Israel to protect its most vulnerable cohorts and reopen the economy next month.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich)