Israel embarks on fourth Covid vaccination campaign
People over the age of 60 and healthcare workers who received their third shot more than four months ago became eligible for a second booster of Pfizer-BioNTech on Monday, after a limited rollout began last week for elderly people and those with compromised immune systems.
Officials had previously said they would wait for more data on the efficacy of a fourth shot before making it more widely available. The Israeli health ministry said on Tuesday, however, that even though it believes the threat posed by Omicron is minimal, it had been forced to act more quickly in the face of skyrocketing infection rates.
The Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, said on Tuesday that the preliminary findings of an Israeli study found a fourth dose of vaccine boosted antibodies five-fold after a week.
The country recorded its sixth highest daily tally since the pandemic began on Monday with 10,644 cases – a 360% rise on the week before, although the spread of the new variant has not been accompanied by corresponding rises in mortality.
“At the moment, I wouldn’t recommend it for younger populations. Our recommendation on a fourth vaccine dose was issued quickly and because there was no choice,” Dr Tal Brosh, the health ministry’s pandemic team coordinator, told Army Radio.
“We couldn’t wait to examine this over time in orderly studies. We think that the risk is tiny.”
Within a day of making it available, 100,000 people received or made an appointment to get the second booster. The rapid pace of infection has also led to worries over testing kit shortages, with health minister Nitzan Horowitz saying that Israel would adjust its criteria for compulsory testing and focus primarily on people at high risk. As a result, more Israelis “will be required to exercise personal responsibility and perform tests at home”, he said in televised remarks on Monday.
In an attempt to avoid a de-facto lockdown and widespread disruption to schools and the economy, precautionary self-isolation periods for people who have been exposed to coronavirus have been scaled down.
The rise in domestic transmission also appears to have rendered international travel restrictions moot, with curbs imposed in November set to be lifted. Foreigners from 199 “orange” states will be allowed to enter the country from 9 January provided they are vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19. The UK, US, UAE and Turkey remain on Israel’s “red” list.
Despite an initial world-leading vaccination programme, vaccine hesitancy within the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities means that only around 70% of Israel’s 9.3 million residents has received two doses of vaccine to date.
Israel was also fiercely criticised by the UN for not doing more to facilitate a faster rollout for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where full vaccination rates are lagging at around 31%.