Israel will administer a fourth dose of coronavirus vaccine to people over the age of 60 and medical personnel, becoming the first nation in the world to do so on such a widespread basis as the omicron variant barrels across the world.
“The citizens of Israel were the first to get the third vaccine and we are continuing to lead with the fourth vaccine,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement late Tuesday. He’s ordered authorities to prepare for a nationwide inoculation drive.
The decision was taken even though Israel doesn’t have reams of data backing up efficacy. The country’s public health chief, Sharon Alroy-Preis, protested at a meeting of government officials and medical experts that a trial at the country’s leading hospital hadn’t yet been carried out, according to Army Radio.
But Galia Rahav, head of Sheba Medical Center’s infectious disease unit, who attended the meeting, said the overwhelming majority nevertheless voted in favor of a fourth shot because of the speed at which omicron was spreading. She called it a “calculated risk.”
‘It’s much more elegant to decide when you have hard data,” Rahav said in an interview. “But it’s true that if we will wait for hard data it will be too late.”
Israel’s handling of the coronavirus has been studied by other countries, because of aggressive steps it took to contain the virus at the outset, its botched reopening after the first lockdown, and its early administration of vaccines and boosters. It launched the world’s leading vaccine drive a little less than a year ago when inoculations first became available, and in August, became the first country to offer boosters to much of its population after the delta variant sent infections soaring.
As Israel’s caseload shrank dramatically within weeks and researchers rolled out data on vaccine efficacy, other countries followed suit with aggressive booster campaigns.
While omnicron has been a dominant strain in countries including the U.S., South Africa and England, Israel has been less hard hit, in part because it clamped down fast with travel restrictions. The nation of 9.3 million people had 341 confirmed cases, including 95 unvaccinated people, and 807 suspected cases, according to a Health Ministry statement Tuesday afternoon.
Shortly after the variant was detected in southern Africa last month, Israel canceled plans to reopen incoming tourism, and banned its citizens from traveling to most of Africa. As the highly infectious strain went on a global rampage, officials widened that ban to include large parts of Europe, the U.S. and Canada.
All residents entering the country are tested for Covid upon arrival, with a mandatory quarantine period of at least three days.
The omicron variant has proved much more infectious than its predecessors and, according to early evidence, has reduced the levels of antibody protection provided by the world’s most-widely used vaccines, prompting booster campaigns in many countries.
However, as hospitalizations and deaths can lag a surge in new infections by a few weeks, it is still not clear whether omicron is more severe than delta. Early data from three of South Africa’s biggest private hospitals show that so far omicron cases in the country appear to be milder than in previous infection waves.
In September, Israel was already making preparations to ensure it has sufficient vaccine supply in case a fourth round of shots was needed. The fourth jab will be given to people who received the third shot at least four months previously, according to a decision by health officials. Authorities also decided to shorten the time period between second and third doses to three months from five.
Israel has mainly used the Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech SE vaccine. Thirty-two percent of the country remains unvaccinated, including children under five. All other residents are eligible for the vaccine.
As Israel prepares for its fourth vaccination drive, it’s also working on other protective measures .Bennett has urged employers to let people work from home if possible, and pending parliamentary approval, children in the seventh grade and above will be barred from in-school lessons if less than 70% of the class is vaccinated. The government plans to extend the restrictions to primary schools in three weeks’ time, according to a statement from the prime minister’s office.
Authorities also agreed to tighten restrictions on restaurant and mall access for the unvaccinated.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)