Health Ministry: Most cancer patients should not get third COVID booster shot

New guidelines recommend that patients with solid tumors not receive a third dose, while those with blood cancers and disorders should do so

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

A man receives a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at the outpatient clinics of the Cardiovascular Centre at Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv, Israel, on July 12, 2021. (Jack Guez/AFP)
A man receives a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at the outpatient clinics of the Cardiovascular Centre at Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv, Israel, on July 12, 2021. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The Health Ministry on Sunday alerted health providers and clinics to not administer a third COVID vaccine booster shot to most patients undergoing cancer treatment.

Last week, Israel began administering third vaccine doses to people with weakened immune systems, including organ transplant recipients and those with autoimmune diseases. Cancer patients are also sometimes immunocompromised.

In a statement, the ministry said close to 90% of oncology patients who were vaccinated and undergoing chemotherapy for solid tumors “maintained a high level of antibodies following the vaccine” and thus there was no immediate need for a booster.

The ministry also noted that the vaccine could cause side effects in some patients, including “lymph node enlargement or liver dysfunction,” and therefore “the recommendation at this time” is not to administer a third COVID dose to cancer patients.

While the ministry said most cancer patients should not receive a third dose, it noted that those with certain hematological cancers are encouraged and eligible to do so. Those include patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia; multiple myeloma; and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. All decisions on receiving a COVID booster shot must be made in consultation with a physician.

Among those who are newly eligible to receive a third dose of the COVID vaccine — with the approval of their physician — are heart, lung, kidney and liver transplant recipients; those with multiple sclerosis; and patients with rheumatological or autoimmune diseases, according to Dr. Emilia Anis, head of the ministry’s epidemiological unit.

The Health Ministry also said that it recommends that those eligible to receive a third dose conduct an antibody test before receiving the shot and another 14 days later “to assess the benefits.”

People, some wearing face masks, walk in Jerusalem on July 12, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The limited booster shot rollout comes as the Delta variant has spread quickly in Israel, causing an increase in infections, and prompting the return of compulsory mask-wearing indoors and encouragement of mask-wearing outdoors.

The Health Ministry decision to give a third shot was based on deliberations by Israeli doctors and health officials, and was made before regulators like the US Food and Drug Administration authorized boosters for immunocompromized people.

The medical community has been largely supportive of the decision, despite the absence of an okay from international regulators, since it is a special provision for those who are at-risk, not a sweeping population-wide policy.

Experts are warning Israelis against interpreting the decision as a sign that vaccines aren’t working, or as a signal that Israel wants boosters for everyone.

Israel’s current stockpile of Pfizer COVID vaccines is slated to expire at the end of July, but Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced earlier this month that he’d brokered a new deal with Pfizer to bring forward a projected delivery to August 1.

Israel is also slated to receive 700,000 COVID doses from South Korea at some point, after a swap deal for Israel’s expiring doses was agreed to earlier this month.

Nathan Jeffay contributed to this report.

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