US biotech company Moderna said Monday that Israel’s Health Ministry has approved its COVID-19 vaccine and it expects to start shipping doses to Israel this month.
Moderna said Israel has secured a total of 6 million doses of the vaccine, enough to inoculate 3 million people.
The announcement came as Israel, under lockdown, struggles with a severe third-wave outbreak of the virus and a reported shortage of vaccine doses, even as it leads the world per capita in its vaccination campaign.
Moderna’s announcement came overnight Monday-Tuesday in Israel and has not been confirmed by the Health Ministry. Israel was expected to follow the lead of the US, which approved the Moderna vaccine for use last month.
The Moderna vaccine has not yet been used in Israel as part of its immunization program, which has so far relied on the shot developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.
“Ministry of Health of Israel has secured 6 million doses and first deliveries [are] expected to begin in January,” Moderna’s statement said. It did not specify how many doses will arrive at first, so it’s unclear if the early shipments will help Israel stave off an expected shortage of vaccine doses.
The approval for Moderna’s vaccine is its third worldwide, following the US and Canada. The company said more authorizations are under review in the EU, Singapore, Switzerland and the UK.
Moderna’s CEO, Stéphane Bancel, called Israel’s authorization of the vaccine a “landmark moment” in the global struggle against the virus.
“This is the third regulatory authorization for the COVID-19 vaccine Moderna, and its first outside of North America. I want to thank the Ministry of Health of Israel for their efforts, as their team have worked tirelessly alongside ours to ensure a timely authorization of this vaccine,” Bancel said in a statement.
Moderna’s chief medical officer, Tal Zaks, is Israeli, and previously said Israel would be one of the first countries to receive the vaccine.
Moderna was initially supposed to begin deliveries to Israel in March. A report last week, which the Health Ministry refused to confirm, said Moderna was going to send 1 million doses as early as this week.
Moderna’s vaccine uses messenger RNA (mRNA) technology similar to the Pfizer-BioNTech shot, but is easier to handle since it doesn’t need to be refrigerated at extremely low temperatures. In trials involving 30,000 volunteers, it was over 94% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in adults. It’s still unclear if the shot prevents asymptomatic spread of the disease.
Israel’s vaccination campaign is in full swing, but the number of new infections continued to climb on Monday as ministers weighed tightening lockdown restrictions.
The Health Ministry said late Monday there were 7,061 new infections confirmed during the day, a preliminary figure that was almost certain to rise as more tests and data are processed. It appeared to be the highest single-day tally since early October during the height of the second-wave outbreak.
There are 53,912 active cases, 772 patients in serious condition, and 3,445 Israelis have died of COVID-19.
Hospital chiefs on Monday warned they were seeing signs Israel was entering the worst wave of the coronavirus pandemic yet, with new cases flooding their facilities. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein told ministers that Israel was heading toward the same fate as Italy, which last year was one of the worst-affected countries and has so far suffered some 75,000 deaths.
Israel has reached a pace of 150,000 vaccine injections every day for the past several days, and on Friday officially passed one million vaccinations or some 11 percent of its population — far and away the world leader in vaccinations per capita.
The mass vaccination drive started December 20 and has so far focused mainly on healthcare workers, those aged over 60, and at-risk groups.
Its globe-leading vaccination drive has been attributed to various factors, including its relatively small but densely packed population and highly professional, community-integrated health services.
Tempering expectations, Hebrew media reports said Sunday that Israel will slow down or even completely stop vaccinating people next week with the first dose of the Pfizer inoculation due to a shortage of vaccines that will take several weeks to resolve.
The pause in the vaccination drive won’t affect the administration of the second dose of the vaccine to the 1.2 million who received the first shot, but the healthcare system may stop scheduling appointments for the first dose of the vaccine as a stopgap measure until further deliveries of the vaccine arrive in Israel, the reports said.
Israel was reportedly holding ongoing talks with Pfizer and Moderna to speed up the arrival of shipments to Israel in an attempt to head off the expected shortage.
Late last month Israel began its third national lockdown since the start of the virus outbreak, but the closure has been slammed as ineffective and full of holes, including schools and workplaces remaining largely open and a lack of enforcement. Commerce, recreation and travel have mostly been banned.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a meeting of cabinet ministers Monday that they will reconvene in 48 hours to decide on tightening an ongoing national lockdown.
Heightening fears, the Health Ministry said earlier Sunday that 30 confirmed cases of the more infectious British mutated strain of the virus have been identified so far in the country, including seven on Sunday.