Israel starts administering third dose of Pfizer vaccine to at-risk adults
TEL AVIV - Israels Ministry of Health on Monday began offering a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine to severely immunocompromised adults in what health experts say could be the first phase of an experiment to provide coronavirus booster shots for older people and the most vulnerable.
The recommendation, published Sunday by the ministry, said that the goal of the new program was to raise antibody levels among immunocompromised citizens, including cancer patients, recipients of liver transplants, and others who have recently exhibited weakened vaccine protection, according to data. It said that it had still not made a decision on administering third shots for the general adult population.
The decision comes as Israel, which was among the fastest to vaccinate in the winter and then among the first to begin reopening in the spring, is experiencing a surge in new cases, spurred by the prevalence of the highly transmissible delta variant first identified in India. Over the past month, infection rates in Israel have spiked from single digits to more than 400 a day.
Just weeks after lifting most covid restrictions, the government has reinstated the mask mandate for indoor spaces and public transportation. It is expected to introduce stricter quarantines for travelers returning from abroad, rapid testing stations for students, and the recently retired "green pass" system granting vaccinated people broader access to mass public events like concerts and movie theaters.
Pfizer and its partner BioNTech sold millions of doses to Israel last year, which were delivered on cargo planes that were greeted with fanfare by then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben Gurion international airport. Pfizer views Israel - with its small size, heterogenous population and meticulously digitized national health-care system, which serves as the basis for a data-sharing agreement signed by the Israeli government and the pharmaceutical giant - as a test case for vaccine rollouts in the rest of the world.
Recent studies show that the Pfizer vaccine remains effective against the delta variant in preventing hospitalizations and serious illness, though it also has shown declining effectiveness at preventing milder cases. The company expects to publish data from the current study on booster shots provided to at-risk adults in Israel. It said Thursday that it will ask U.S. and European regulators within weeks to authorize booster shots.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced that he has coordinated a fast-tracked delivery of the next batch of Pfizer doses to arrive Aug. 1, to allow the country to replenish its dwindling supplies and continue its campaign to inoculate 12-to-15-year-olds.
Eyal Leshem, an infectious-disease specialist at Sheba Medical Center, said that even though Israel would probably not make a third shot available to the general public any time soon, the move may open the path toward targeting specific vulnerable populations who are known to have reduced protection when compared with the healthy population.
He said that vaccine hesitancy and lack of access to the vaccine around the globe, including in the nearby Palestinian territories, remain persistent challenges that would prevent general booster shots from becoming widespread health policy, but that approaches could continue to change as the virus mutates and countries open up.
"A possible scenario is that as the virus mutates and changes, the vaccines will be modified accordingly, and boosters will enhance immunity against circulating viruses," he said.
The director general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in a statement Monday admonished vaccine manufacturers for seeking to push boosters to wealthy countries when many places do not have access to doses.