Clinics to begin rollout of variant-tailored COVID shots this week

Elderly and at-risk to be given priority; unclear whether vaccines will immediately be available to all, with lethargic response expected from public

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative image: a man receives his fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, at a Clallit vaccine center in Jerusalem on January 3, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Illustrative image: a man receives his fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, at a Clallit vaccine center in Jerusalem on January 3, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israeli clinics have been given the green light to start administering the new variant-tailored coronavirus vaccines later this week.

A Health Ministry spokeswoman told The Times of Israel on Tuesday that the updated Pfizer vaccines are about to be distributed to healthcare providers, and that clinics are allowed to start giving then to patients upon arrival.

Most are expected to start administering them next week, while some may begin sooner, she added.

They will be available as a third, fourth or fifth shot. Distribution will be limited to over-12s, as they have not undergone testing yet on younger ages. It’s not clear whether initial distribution will be for all or just for the elderly and at-risk.

The new Pfizer vaccines, customized to Omicron but supposed to also hold up well against subsequent variants, are being rolled out amid concerns of rising coronavirus cases, and worries of COVID and flu together giving Israel’s health services a tough winter.

However, in sharp contrast to the rollout of the original vaccines when there were long queues, a lethargic response is widely expected this time. Prof. Amnon Lahad, head of family medicine in Jerusalem for the Clalit HMO, told The Times of Israel: “I assume that very few people will take it.”

Prof. Amnon Lahad (courtesy of Hebrew University)

Lahad, a public health professor at Hebrew University, noted that the response to the new shots has been muted in other countries, such as the United States.

“We’re likely to see this here because people feel pretty secure after three to four vaccine doses, and while people are getting the message from the government that more vaccines are worthwhile, many are skeptical,” he said.

“There’s also a sense of tiredness — people are tired of vaccinating.”

The Health Ministry has told healthcare providers to prioritize getting the updated vaccines to people aged 65-plus, as well as younger people whose medical background categorizes them as at-risk. They are also instructed to prioritize people who care for the elderly and health service employees.

The ministry recommended vaccination for some other groups: teachers in schools and kindergartens, prisoners and prison guards, and pregnant women. But despite the guidelines, there is still some confusion in clinics. While the vaccines are expected to quickly become available to all over-12s, it is not yet clear whether there will be an initial period of distribution to only priority groups, or whether universal distribution will be immediate.

A health care worker takes swab samples from Israelis at a drive-thru testing complex in Modiin, January 6, 2022. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Countering public lethargy, many health experts say the new vaccines can increase protection, especially for the most vulnerable. Prof Cyrille Cohen, head of Bar Ilan University’s immunology lab, told The Times of Israel last week that he expects gains in cutting infection to be modest, but believes they “may well help to enhance protection against severe disease.”

He added: “For this reason, they are most important for vulnerable and old populations, people with co-morbidities, or for the immunosuppressed.”

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