Israelis over 60 will become the first people in the world eligible for a fourth COVID-19 vaccine shot from Sunday, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said.
“From next week those who are over 60 can get their fourth shot without an appointment,” Horowitz told Kan public radio on Wednesday. The move comes after the cabinet on Tuesday adopted the recommendation from a panel of health experts as Israel gears up to combat the Omicron variant.
“I pray that Omicron will be less aggressive, but people who are more vulnerable need to be the most prepared,” Horowitz said.
The panel on Tuesday also recommended a fourth shot be given to at-risk groups and medical personnel. Channel 12 reported that Israel’s HMOs had been instructed to start offering the fourth dose on Sunday.
The decision to offer fourth shots must still be approved by Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash.
Horowitz stressed that the decision was a medical one and not political and said he was fully confident Ash would approve the move. He said data indicated that the effect of the 3rd booster shot begins to wane after four-to-five months.
Israel’s moves to aggressively combat rising COVID cases come as the Health Ministry also warned that it was seeing a worrying rise in the number of flu cases.
The ministry said in a statement Wednesday that since the start of the flu season 1,088 people had been hospitalized with flu, including 401 children and 70 pregnant women.
The ministry urged everyone six months and older to get a flu vaccine, noting that it could be received together with a COVID shot for those eligible.
The Health Ministry said Tuesday that 170 new cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus had been confirmed in Israel, doubling the number of infections.
There have been 341 verified Omicron cases in Israel to date, the Health Ministry said in a statement. Another 807 infections were “highly suspected” to be Omicron cases, but were awaiting verification.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Tuesday welcomed the recommendation and ordered that officials prepare a campaign to administer the vaccines. “This is wonderful news that will assist us in getting through the Omicron wave that is engulfing the world,” Bennett said in a statement.
“The citizens of Israel were the first in the world to receive the third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and we are continuing to pioneer with the fourth dose as well,” the prime minister said.
Israel previously pioneered a third booster shot, rolling it out for at-risk groups before expanding the program to the general population weeks later, before much of the rest of the world. Over four million Israelis have received the third dose, out of 9.3 million people.
The experts, a government body called the Pandemic Treatment Staff, recommended that medical personnel, adults over the age of 60 and other at-risk groups get the fourth dose, after waiting at least four months since the third dose.
Eighty-six percent of experts in the group favored the move.
Research on a fourth vaccine dose is being carried out at the Sheba Medical Center but has not yet been published.
Sheba said that it is conducting a study of the feasibility of a fourth shot in a trial among some 200 volunteers, examining the effect on antibody levels. The hospital said it was the first such trial in the world and would be carried out in cooperation with the Health Ministry.
Prof. Galia Rahav, who heads Sheba’s infectious diseases unit and is on the expert panel, said the decision to recommend the extra boosters was “not simple” given the paucity of data showing that the protection offered by the third shot was waning. “But at the same time, there are terribly frightening numbers from what is happening in the wider world,” she told Army Radio, referring to the fast-spreading Omicron strain.
Scientists don’t know everything about Omicron yet, but they say vaccination should offer strong protections against severe illness and death. Initial figures have also shown the strain to be even more contagious than the Delta strain.
Bennett and Horowitz have raised the possibility of a fourth dose for weeks, but Health Ministry experts had advised against the move, including in a decision last week. Bennett earlier said he was waiting “impatiently” for the fourth dose to be approved, predicting a new wave of infections was unstoppable.
The Omicron threat has spurred new calls for Israelis to get vaccinated, including children, by health officials and government leaders.
Lawmakers have also renewed restrictions to curb infections in recent days, including bans on international travel and public workplace capacity.