Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that a vaccine-resistant strain of COVID-19 was inevitable, as the Health Ministry on Wednesday extended Israel’s vaccination campaign to anyone over the age of 35.
“It’s just a matter of time until we hit a strain that the current vaccines are not susceptible to,” he told the World Economic Forum.
He spoke as Prof. Chezy Levy, the Health Ministry’s director-general announced that Israelis 35 and over would be eligible for vaccination from Thursday, saying that the measure had been coordinated with health providers.
Israel has administered a first vaccine dose to over 2.8 million of its 9.3 million citizens in its inoculation campaign and leads the world by far in vaccinations per capita, even as its third wave outbreak rages unabated despite a weeks-long national lockdown.
In an apparent world first, on Tuesday the Health Ministry issued a directive in favor of vaccinating children under the age of 16 who are at high risk of developing serious symptoms if they contract COVID-19. The decision is still awaiting final approval.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the main inoculation used in Israel, has not been tested on children and was approved by the US and EU for emergency use for adults and for teenagers over the age of 16.
Israel has also approved the vaccination of pregnant women, despite a World Health Organization recommendation against it, following a series of serious coronavirus cases among pregnant women that have been attributed to the British variant.
This week, authorities approved vaccinating 16-18-year-olds to allow students to take their “Bagrut” matriculation exams on time. Those aged 18-35 are still officially not able to vaccinate, though some have done so in areas with low turnout or where health providers were seeking to use up vaccine doses before they spoil.
The virus continues to run rampant despite the vaccination campaign and lockdown, tempering expectation of an end to the outbreak in Israel anytime soon. Officials including have blamed new virus variants on the sky-high rate of infection.
Netanyahu issued his warning about virus mutations on Wednesday when speaking to the World Economic Forum via videoconference.
While stressing that he’s not an expert on vaccines, the prime minister said he believed “it’s just a matter of time until we hit a strain that the current vaccines are not susceptible to.”
Netanyahu said that due to mutations, “we’ll have to inoculate ourselves at least annually, that’s my guess.”
He said he seeks to sign future contracts to purchase new or modified vaccines for the variants, as well as ones safe for teenagers and children.
On negotiations with Pfizer, he said a major “selling point” in encouraging the firm to swiftly provide stocks of vaccines to Israel was that the country “could serve as a world laboratory for herd immunity or something approaching herd immunity very quickly.”
He said Israel “can serve as a global test case” on the vaccine and on reopening the economy. “We didn’t quibble about the price” when negotiating with Pfizer, he added.
The more infectious variants are believed to be the cause of the stubbornly high infection rate in the country. The death rate, test positivity rate, number of infections and number of serious cases have remained alarmingly high for weeks. Over 25 percent of the 4,605 Israelis who have died of COVID-19 succumbed to this disease in the past month alone.
In addition to the widespread British variant, the Health Ministry said Thursday it had found a total of 30 cases of the South African mutation in Israel so far. Health officials located the mutation by testing a sample of Israelis inside the country, not people returning from abroad.
Israel extended its closure of Ben Gurion International Airport on Wednesday and is closing most of its land borders with Jordan and Egypt to keep out virus variants. The cabinet may extend the nationwide lockdown, Israel’s third, which is set to expire on Sunday. The extension will be decided on at a cabinet meeting on Thursday, Netanyahu said.
The government’s response to the third wave of the outbreak has been hindered by coalition infighting over enforcement of restrictions in ultra-Orthodox areas.
Some ultra-Orthodox groups have ignored the lockdown rules and responded to police enforcement with violent riots. Netanyahu’s Likud party has largely sided with its ultra-Orthodox political allies against strict enforcement of the rules, while its partner in the outgoing coalition, the Blue and White party, is pushing for stricter enforcement.