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Israel to offer COVID-19 booster shot to older citizens

A masked woman wearing glasses receives a needle jab in the arm
A medical worker administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a woman in Tel Aviv in January 2021.
(Oded Balilty / Associated Press)

Israel’s prime minister said Thursday that the country would offer a COVID-19 vaccine booster to people over age 60 who have already been inoculated.

The announcement by Naftali Bennett makes Israel, which launched one of the world’s most successful vaccination drives this year, the first country to offer a third dose of a Western vaccine to its citizens on a wide scale.

“I’m announcing this evening the beginning of the campaign to receive the booster vaccine, the third vaccine,” Bennett said in a nationally televised address. “Reality proves the vaccines are safe. Reality also proves the vaccines protect against severe morbidity and death. And like the flu vaccine that needs to be renewed from time to time, it is the same in this case.”

The decision comes at a time of rising infections and signs that the vaccine’s efficacy dwindles over time.

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Anyone over age 60 who was vaccinated more than five months ago will be eligible. Bennett said the country’s new president, Isaac Herzog, would be the first to get the booster on Friday. It will also be offered to the general public.

Bennett, who is 49, said his first call after the news conference would be to his mother to encourage her to get her booster shot.

Neither the U.S. nor the European Union have authorized COVID-19 booster shots. It’s not yet proved that a third dose helps and, if so, who needs one and when.

But Bennett said a team of expert advisors had agreed, 56-1, that it made sense to launch the booster campaign. He said that the recommendation was made after “considerable research and analysis” and that its information would be shared around the world. Preliminary studies in Israel have indicated the vaccine’s protection against serious illness dropped among those vaccinated in January.

“The findings show that there is a decline in the body’s immunity over time, and the purpose of the booster is to restrengthen it, thus significantly reducing the chances of infection and serious illness,” Bennett said.

Israel has used the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine on its population. Previously, boosters were used in some countries with the Chinese and Russian vaccines.

Early this year, Israel carried out one of the world’s most aggressive and successful vaccination campaigns, reaching a deal with Pfizer to purchase enough vaccines for its population in exchange for sharing its data with the drug maker.

More than 57% of the country’s 9.3 million citizens have received two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and more than 80% of the population over age 40 is vaccinated.

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The vaccination program allowed Israel to reopen its economy ahead of other countries. But Israel has seen an increase in cases involving the new Delta variant, even among people who are vaccinated. Bennett urged unvaccinated Israelis, especially younger people who have been hesitant, to get inoculated immediately.

This month, Israel started giving individuals with weakened immune systems a third shot to increase their resilience against COVID-19.

Pfizer said Wednesday that the effectiveness of the vaccine drops slightly six months after the second dose. Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech have said they plan to seek authorization for boosters in August.

Most studies — and real-world data from Britain and the U.S. — so far show that the Pfizer vaccine remains powerfully protective against serious illness. On Wednesday, Pfizer released data from its long-running 44,000-person study showing that while protection against any symptomatic infection declined slightly six months after immunization, protection against severe COVID-19 remained at nearly 97%. This month, Israel’s Health Ministry announced that protection against severe disease was around 93%.

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The World Health Organization said this month that there is not enough evidence to show that a third dose is needed.

The agency’s officials have appealed for wealthier countries to share vaccines with poorer nations that have yet to immunize their people, instead of using them as boosters. Israel has come under criticism for not sharing more of its vaccines with Palestinians.

The Israeli Health Ministry recorded at least 2,165 new coronavirus cases Thursday, after an accelerating increase in infections over the last month. The number of serious cases of COVID-19 have soared from 19 a day in mid-June to 159 as the highly infectious Delta variant has spread.

Thanks to its successful vaccination campaign, Israel lifted almost all of its pandemic restrictions in spring. But with new cases back on the rise, the country has tried to halt the spread of the Delta variant by reimposing limitations on gatherings, restoring a “green pass” system for vaccinated people to enter certain enclosed spaces, and an indoor mask mandate.


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