Israeli hospital begins world’s first study on efficacy of 4th COVID vaccine dose

6,000 individuals, including 150 medical staff, to be given additional booster shot in first-of-its-kind research

An Israeli receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccine center at the Malcha mall in Jerusalem, on December 23, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)
An Israeli receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccine center at the Malcha mall in Jerusalem, on December 23, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

An Israeli hospital on Monday began a study on the efficacy of administering a fourth dose of the COVID vaccine.

The Sheba Medical Center, located just outside Tel Aviv, said Sunday that under the study, 6,000 individuals will be given a fourth shot. Results are expected in about two weeks.

The trial began with 150 medical personnel who received a booster dose in August receiving a fourth shot of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. The staff receiving the additional dose were tested and found to have low antibody levels.

The study, the first of its kind in the world, is being carried out in conjunction with the Health Ministry, and has been approved by the government’s senior panel on human medical trials.

“This study will test the effect of the fourth vaccine dose on the level of antibodies, on preventing contagion, and check its safety,” Sheba’s Prof. Gili Regev-Yochay said.

“This study is expected to shed light on the additional benefit of giving a fourth dose, and lead us to understand whether and to whom it is worth giving a fourth dose,” she added.

The study had been set to begin two weeks ago, apparently with a smaller group, but was delayed because it had not received the necessary approvals.

Last Tuesday, the Health Ministry’s expert advisory panel had already signed off on distributing a fourth dose to those over the age of 60, along with others at risk.

Prof. Gili Regev-Yochai, director of the Infectious Disease Epidemiology Unit at Sheba Medical Center (YouTube screenshot)

That rollout had been set to start Sunday, but the ministry delayed it, after reviewing preliminary data suggesting that people with the Omicron variant are between 50 percent to 70% less likely to need hospitalization than those with the Delta strain.

The United Kingdom Health Security Agency findings add to emerging evidence that Omicron produces milder illness than other variants — but also spreads faster and better evades vaccines.

Nachman Ash, the ministry’s director-general, has yet to approve the campaign for fourth doses, and has been examining the data from Britain.

If more such data accumulates, Channel 13 news reported, Ash may not back the government advisory panel’s recommendation to offer the additional booster shots at this stage, and may instead send the matter back for further deliberation.

Separate reports from the Kan public broadcaster and Channel 12 news said Ash will likely make a decision on whether to approve the fourth vaccine doses this week.

Israel was set to become the first country in the world to roll out a fourth dose for certain groups.

Kan said Prime Minister Naftali Bennett wanted to start administering the additional booster shots as soon as possible, but acknowledged that Ash has the final say on the matter.

The move has been backed by many experts, although others have cautioned it may be better to wait for a new vaccine that is tailored to the Omicron variant.

According to the latest Health Ministry statistics released Sunday night, 801 new COVID cases were confirmed the previous day. The positivity rate trended upward, reaching 2.16%, compared to 1.82% a day earlier and 1.1% a week ago.

The reproductive rate, or “R” number, also continued its gradual rise Sunday, hitting 1.41, up from 1.02 in early December. The transmission rate is based on data from 10 days earlier and any value above 1 shows that the pandemic is growing.

In line with the UK data, however, serious cases and hospitalizations continue to remain low. As of Thursday evening, there were 12,041 active COVID cases in Israel, with 145 of them hospitalized, 91 in serious condition and 39 on ventilators.

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