1st batch of Moderna vaccines set to land in Israel Thursday

Health official: ‘Worrying’ study on vaccine’s potency against S. African strain

Sharon Alroy-Preis says unclear what impact vaccination has on COVID variant, but warns it may offer less protection against mutation

Illustrative: Thabisle Khlatshwayo receives her second shot at a vaccine trial facility for AstraZeneca at Soweto's Chris Sani Baragwanath Hospital outside Johannesburg, South Africa, November 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
Illustrative: Thabisle Khlatshwayo receives her second shot at a vaccine trial facility for AstraZeneca at Soweto's Chris Sani Baragwanath Hospital outside Johannesburg, South Africa, November 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

A top Health Ministry official on Wednesday expressed concern that existing vaccines may be ineffective against a new coronavirus strain that is believed to have originated in South Africa.

Sharon Alroy-Preis, the acting head of the ministry’s public health division, cited a “worrying” preliminary study indicating vaccination may offer less protection against the South African variant, but stressed it wasn’t clear what impact vaccines have on the strain.

“If we reach the conclusion that it is ineffective we’ll ask that people confirmed [to be infected] and those who returned from South Africa to enter quarantine at a hotel,” she told the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee.

Sharon Alroy-Preis, the acting head of the ministry’s public health division, speaks virtually to the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee on January 6, 2021. (Screen capture: YouTube)

It wasn’t immediately clear what research Alroy-Preis was referring to. Scientists in South Africa have been testing to see if vaccines are effective against the strain.

The South African variant and another which has emerged in Britain are said to be more infectious versions of the virus, and have prompted widespread concern.

Tal Zaks, the chief medical officer at Moderna, told Israeli television on Wednesday that he believes the Massachusetts-based firm’s vaccine will protect recipients from the British and South African variants.

The head of BioNTech, who developed a vaccine with Pfizer, said in an interview last week that he believed the vaccine he helped develop would be effective against the UK variant.

Vaccine makers have said their products could be modified within weeks to adapt to new variants.

“We’re dealing with variants that may break out quickly, like the English variant, and those that can endanger the effectiveness of the vaccine,” Alroy-Preis told lawmakers. “We know there is community spread in Israel.”

Her comments came as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed the first shipment of Moderna vaccines will arrive in Israel Thursday.

He said the shots will be administered to those who cannot go to vaccination centers, whether because they’re in quarantine or for other reasons.

He didn’t specify how many shots are set to arrive, though reports have indicated 100,000-150,000 doses.

Netanyahu also said he was still working to move up other vaccine deliveries to Israel.

A Moderna COVID-19 vaccine held by a nurse in Boston, Massachusetts, December 30, 2020. (Elise Amendola/AP)

Moderna said Monday that Israel had ordered 6 million doses of the vaccine, enough to inoculate 3 million people. The US biotech firm was initially supposed to begin deliveries to Israel in March.

Israel’s vaccination campaign is in full swing, even as the country grapples with a surge in cases and is set to enter a more stringent lockdown on Thursday night.

Israel has been vaccinating some 150,000 people a day with Pfizer’s shot since its vaccination campaign began on December 20, with a focus on elderly people, at-risk groups and healthcare workers. The healthcare system is reportedly facing a shortage of doses that will force health providers to slow the pace of new inoculations, however.

Health officials have said the country will prioritize second doses in the coming weeks, and that there are enough vaccines to supply those doses to everyone who has received a first dose.

On Wednesday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said the Israel Defense Forces won’t request additional vaccine doses until all high-risk Israelis and teachers are inoculated.

A medical worker receives a coronavirus vaccine at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem on December 20, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Meanwhile, Hadassah hospitals in Ein Kerem and Mount Scopus informed their staff that as of Thursday, those who haven’t been vaccinated won’t be allowed to continue to work.

The Jerusalem-based hospitals will put those staff members on vacation leave.

The order, which comes amid a huge spike in cases, didn’t apply to those who recovered from the disease or were participating in the Israeli vaccine trial.

According to Channel 12 news, 10 people being treated for COVID-19 complications at Hadassah Ein Kerem tested positive for the virus after receiving the first dose of Pfizer’s vaccine. The hospital won’t give the second dose to these people, the network said.

There have been other documented cases of Israelis contracting the virus after receiving the first vaccine dose.

The second dose of Pfizer’s vaccine is supposed to be administered 21 days after the first. The second dose strengthens the immune system’s response to the virus, bringing it to 95% effectiveness and ensuring that immunity lasts. This level of immunity is only reached about a week after the second dose — or 28 days after the first.

The two doses of Moderna’s vaccine are set to be administered 28 days apart.

In the Channel 12 news interview, Zaks warned against delaying the second dose of the vaccine, as Britain and other European countries have decided to do.

“I wouldn’t do it,” he said.

Zaks, who is Israeli, also counseled against mixing the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.

In this Jan. 27, 2020, still image from video, Moderna Chief Medical Officer Tal Zaks speaks during an interview at the company headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts (AP Photo/Rodrique Ngowi)

Updated Health Ministry figures released Wednesday evening showed 4,488 new coronavirus cases diagnosed since midnight bringing the number of active coronavirus cases to 60,801.

The ministry said 887 people were in serious condition, 210 of them on ventilators. The death toll stood at 3,512.

The ministry said 8,191 people were diagnosed Wednesday, the second straight day over 8,000 infections were confirmed with 6.8% of tests returning positive.

The highest daily tally since the start of the pandemic was September 30, when over 9,000 infections were recorded while the country was under a second lockdown.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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