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Israel ready to vaccinate adolescents as soon as FDA approves

After Pfizer-BioNTech says shots 100% effective for those aged 12-15, Health Ministry signals eagerness to vaccinate preteens and teens, as top official counsels patience

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Vials of Pfizer-BioNTech's coronavirus vaccine arrive at a Clalit vaccination center in Jerusalem on January 4, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Vials of Pfizer-BioNTech's coronavirus vaccine arrive at a Clalit vaccination center in Jerusalem on January 4, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel’s Health Ministry said Wednesday that it is ready to vaccinate the country’s young adolescents as soon as the US Food and Drug Administration and European regulators authorize the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds.

The announcement came after the two companies announced that Phase Three trials had shown their vaccine is 100 percent effective against the coronavirus in that age bracket.

“When the approvals are received from required regulators (FDA and EMA) that the vaccine is effective and safe for children an inoculation process will begin subject to the stockpiles of vaccines, as we did with the vaccinations in Israel of those aged 16 and above,” the ministry said, in a statement referring to the US and European drugs regulators.

Senior Israeli Health Ministry officials were quoted by the Kan public broadcaster as saying that once the move is approved by the FDA, it would quickly be authorized in Israel. The country’s health maintenance organizations will use the existing stock of vaccines to start inoculating about 600,000 Israelis aged 12-15, according to the report.

File: Minister of Health Yuli Edelstein at a press conference in Jerusalem, on February 10, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, who welcomed the Pfizer-BioNTech announcement, urged the purchase of more vaccines in preparation for the expanded drive immediately following FDA approval.

“There is nothing more needed at the moment than swift approval for the purchase of additional vaccines,” Edelstein tweeted.

However, head of public health at the Health Ministry, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, said the country will not rush ahead with inoculating preteens and young teenagers.

“Giving the vaccinations in Israel [to 12-15 year-olds] will not get underway straight after FDA approval and the subject will go under professional and thorough deliberation at the Health Ministry,” she told the Ynet website.

Channel 12 estimated that vaccinations of preteens and young teenagers may begin in May.

Israel has fully vaccinated over 4.7 million people, more than half of its population.

But the purchase of additional stocks of shots has run into complications amid political squabbling that prevented a special cabinet meeting from convening earlier this week for approval of a budget to buy more vaccines.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz canceled the meeting in a standoff over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to appoint a permanent justice minister. In response, Netanyahu’s party accused him of undermining Israel’s public health.

The cabinet had been set to discuss a NIS 7 billion ($2.1 billion) spending package on coronavirus vaccines.

Gantz sent a letter to both the health and finance ministries Wednesday demanding clarification about their request to urgently bring to cabinet approval the purchase of further vaccinations, Ynet reported.

Gantz claimed he looked into the matter and discovered that if the proposed purchases go ahead, there will be a costly surplus of vaccines. He further maintained that it is not clear that Israel could later exchange the vaccines for new shots that might be needed to combat future virus mutations.

“The urgency of approving new budgets that will increase the deficit, with an emphasis on issues unrelated to vaccines and the needs of the health system, is unclear,” a statement on behalf of Gantz said.

The statement said the request for more vaccine contracts comes as there are still unused inoculations in storage.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv on March 15, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

While the exact number of vaccines Israel has purchased — and for what price — has not been revealed by authorities, Army Radio reported Wednesday that over a million vaccines arrived in the country this week, part of a shipment totaling two million units. The remaining 700,000 are scheduled to arrive at the beginning of next week.

A portion of the shipments are already reserved as the second dose for those who have already had the first injection of the two-dose vaccine, the report said.

But the vaccines that arrived and those that are due are not included in any formal agreement and Israel has not yet paid for them, according to the station. In addition, some agreements for previous shipments have not been signed off.

The Finance Ministry did not know about the latest shipments until they started to arrive, and since then there have been frantic communications with the Health Ministry.

As a result, the Finance Ministry is now demanding that it has greater say in the process of ordering vaccines which, according to the report, is currently handled by Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy. Finance officials may even want to change parts of earlier agreements, the station said.

The Health Ministry declined to comment on the situation, Army Radio reported.

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, during a briefing on March 15, 2021. (Screenshot / GPO)

Some ministers, not named in the report, speculated that Israel committed to buying volumes of vaccines but the cash to pay for them is part of the budget that needed to be approved in the canceled cabinet meeting.

The meeting, set for Monday, was called off this week amid fresh squabbling between the Likud and Blue and White parties over the appointment of a permanent justice minister. Netanyahu has refused to bring up for a vote Gantz’s choice for justice minister, a post Gantz is currently filling. His interim appointment ends on Thursday, after which time Israel will have no justice minister if no appointment is approved. In response, Gantz refused to convene the cabinet to discuss the vaccine acquisition.

According to an Army Radio report Tuesday, Pfizer representatives were also frustrated with the delay in cabinet approval and demanded an explanation. The report said Pfizer representatives “do not know what to tell their supervisors when they wake up in America.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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