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In first test outside US, Israeli hospital to trial Omicron-specific Pfizer vaccine

As part of new research, Sheba Medical Center will administer 200 doses of a new shot designed to have increased effectiveness against the variant

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A health worker prepares to give a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a Clalit Health Services center in Katzrin, Golan Heights, January 9, 2022. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)
A health worker prepares to give a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a Clalit Health Services center in Katzrin, Golan Heights, January 9, 2022. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

An Israeli hospital is set to hold trials for an Omicron-specific version of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine, becoming the first medical center outside the US to test the shots.

The pharmaceutical company has been working for months on a version of its vaccine that will give improved protection against variants. When Omicron emerged in late November, efforts focused on making the vaccine more effective against that variant specifically.

Omicron is able to infect vaccinated people in many cases, but the infections are less severe than for the unvaccinated.

Pfizer is already running its own trial on the new version of the vaccine in the US, and on Monday Sheba Medical Center, near Tel Aviv, announced that it will be the first non-US location to hold trials. It is expected to start its research in the next few days.

Professor Gili Regev-Yochay, director of Sheba’s Infection Prevention and Control Unit at Sheba Medical Center, called the trial “extremely important as the world continues to deal with and battle these variants and perhaps others in the future.”

“Vaccinations are the only way to roll back the global coronavirus pandemic,” she said.

The study was designed by Sheba together with Pfizer, and approved by the regulatory health authorities, including the Israeli Ministry of Health and the Helsinki Committee, an international body that oversees human clinical trials.

The study will evaluate the safety, tolerability and immune response of a higher dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, of an investigational Omicron-based vaccine, and of a combination of both vaccines. The shots will be given as a fourth vaccination dose to adults who are all age 60 and older.

File: A volunteer wearing safety gear spends some time with a patient in the Coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem on January 20, 2022 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Around 200 participants will take part in the research, drawn from an ongoing study that closely monitors the response of health workers to vaccines.

Leading immunologist Prof. Cyrille Cohen of Bar Ilan University, who is not connected to the Sheba-Pfizer research, told The Times of Israel: “This is potentially a significant study that could help us to understand much better how we can use vaccines to increase protection against variants. It could help against Omicron, but has far wider significance as we will face other variants, and this kind of study helps us to improve preparation.”

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