Health chief: Israel and US are not in same situation

After FDA panel limits US boosters, minister says Israel proves 3rd dose works

Horowitz says US panel received Israeli data ‘unequivocally’ showing extra shot is effective against Delta; Bennett op-ed: Waiting too long for booster would have squandered gains

An Israeli man takes a selfie while receiving the third Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from medical staff at a coronavirus vaccination center in Ramat Gan on Aug. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
An Israeli man takes a selfie while receiving the third Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from medical staff at a coronavirus vaccination center in Ramat Gan on Aug. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

After a US panel decided initially to only recommended COVID vaccination booster shots to Americans over 65 or at high risk, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said Saturday that a document submitted to the committee by the Food and Drug Administration showed that Israel’s booster campaign was a key measure against the coronavirus.

“A document submitted by FDA experts to the US panel states unequivocally that Israel is clear proof that a third vaccine is effective in the fight against the Delta [variant of the coronavirus],” Horowitz tweeted.

“It raises the level of protection in all age groups who received the vaccine and is safe and without significant side effects, similar to the second dose,” the minister said.

The health minister then directed his followers to a thread of tweets by an Israeli pediatrician Dr. Lior Hecht, who wrote that Israel also initially only gave a third dose to those most at risk. The doctor also noted that Israel started vaccinating earlier than the United States, so the effectiveness of the shots was starting to wane earlier.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz speaks during his visit at the Beilinson Medical Center, July 27, 2021 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash said in the wake of the American panel’s recommendation that different countries must make decisions based on their own situations.

“We do not underestimate the [FDA] decision, but the morbidity situation in Israel is different to that of the United States,” Ash told the Ynet news site. “We were not at all surprised by the decision — if they had not approved the use of the booster at all, that would have surprised us.”

However, senior Health Ministry officials have expressed concern that the FDA panel’s decision could undermine Israel’s third shot campaign.

Officials said they now fear greater wariness about the third vaccine and potential legal challenges over the government’s mandating a third shot as part of its Green Pass policy.

In an opinion piece published in The Economist on Friday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said that some experts in Israel had been reluctant to endorse booster shots, but that ultimately the decision was made to inoculate the population with a third dose in the face of the wave of the Delta variant of the virus.

“The studies so far show the third dose is sufficient to boost resistance back to the level after the first two. Waiting too long to administer the third dose risks squandering gains already made thought vaccination and eroding public trust,” Bennett wrote.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, on September 12, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Economy Minister Orna Barbivai said Saturday the FDA’s decision would be examined by ministers at a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet.

“We will study the FDA decision in the coronavirus cabinet,” Barbivai said. “We will continue with efforts to allow life to carry on alongside the virus instead of an ongoing lockdown.”

Officially, despite the panel appearing to reject Israeli data presented to the FDA that shows vaccine effectiveness wanes after around six months, the Israeli Health Ministry welcomed the rulings, saying they validated the decision to offer 3rd shots to all aged 12 and over.

“With the FDA board’s unanimous decision on giving boosters to those above 65 and in danger, and also to health workers — exactly as we began doing here — the FDA has validated the booster program initiated in Israel,” the ministry said.

While Israel started by initiating the booster program for similar at-risk groups, it rapidly expanded eligibility to all those 12 and over.

“Israel has decided to act in a responsible and swift manner in order to tackle rising morbidity and the data points to the high effectiveness of the booster shot that restores the protection against the coronavirus,” the statement said.

A man receives his third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a temporary health care center in Jerusalem, on August 29, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

However, a senior ministry official told the Ynet news site that Israel was concerned the ruling would undermine the booster program that has now seen over 3 million Israelis get their third shot.

“I have no doubt that this will affect the percentage of people who will get the third shot; I’m sure that many now will be unsure [that it is necessary],” the official told Ynet.

They also said it could affect Israel’s ability to make its Green Pass, which allows people into public events and communal spaces, conditional on having the third shot.

“Could people who decide not to get the third shot based on FDA recommendations challenge our Green Pass policy?” the official asked, anticipating legal challenges to the decision to mandate a third shot, six months after the first two, in order to qualify for the pass.

A woman shows her ‘Green Pass’ before entering a concert for vaccinated seniors, organized by the municipality of Tel Aviv, on February 24, 2021. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The committee of outside experts who advise the FDA on Friday endorsed the extra shot only for select portions of the US population — namely, those most at risk from the virus.

The FDA panel’s rejection of a more widespread campaign came despite full-throated arguments about the need for boosters from both Pfizer and health officials from Israel, which began offering boosters to its citizens in July. Israeli officials presented figures to the FDA panel indicating waning immunity against infection among all age groups around six months after vaccination.

Friday’s vote was just the first step. The FDA itself is expected to make a decision on boosters in the next few days, though it usually follows the committee’s recommendations. The offering of boosters is also subject to approval by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Scientists have been divided over the need for boosters and who should get them, and the World Health Organization has strongly objected to rich nations giving a third round of shots when poor countries don’t have enough vaccines for their first.

An Israeli teacher receives a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, at a vaccination center in Jerusalem, on August 24, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While research suggests immunity levels in those who have been vaccinated wane over time and boosters can reverse that, the Pfizer vaccine is still highly protective against severe illness and death, even amid the spread of the highly contagious delta variant.

However, representatives for Pfizer argued that it is important to shore up immunity before protection against severe disease starts to erode. A company study of 44,000 people showed effectiveness against symptomatic COVID-19 was 96% two months after the second dose, but had dropped to 84% by around six months.

Panel member Dr. Cody Meissner of Tufts University said he was worried about extra doses for younger age groups given the risk of heart inflammation that has been seen in mostly younger men after a second dose. While the condition is very rare, he said, it is not clear if that risk would increase with another dose.

Pfizer pointed to Israeli data from nearly 3 million boosters to suggest side effect rates would be similar to that seen after second doses.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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