Omicron will give Israel herd immunity without swamping ICUs, says former COVID czar

Ronni Gamzu predicts mass infections but fewer intensive care cases than during Delta wave, slams travel restrictions, says 4th shot is as logical as ‘1+1=2’

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

Prof. Ronni Gamzu in September 2020, when he was coronavirus czar. (David Cohen/FLASH90)
Prof. Ronni Gamzu in September 2020, when he was coronavirus czar. (David Cohen/FLASH90)

The current coronavirus wave will give Israel herd immunity and won’t overwhelm hospitals, former coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu predicted on Monday.

He also voiced optimism over the decision to start offering fourth coronavirus shots for Israelis over 60, medical workers and the immunosuppressed, saying the move was based on logic as basic as “one plus one equals two.” By contrast, he dismissed Israel’s continued restrictions on entry from abroad as “useless” now that Omicron was spreading in the community.

Gamzu, CEO of Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center and a former Health Ministry director-general, said in a press briefing that Omicron’s high transmissibility means that so many people will inevitably catch it that it will leave the country in a state of herd immunity.

There is speculation — denied by the current coronavirus czar Salman Zarka — that the government is intentionally pursuing a high-infection policy for the sake of herd immunity.

Gamzu wasn’t clear on whether he expected herd immunity to result from intentional policy or as a natural trajectory of the variant. He said that the government was “changing course, gradually but in the right direction” by taking a lighter approach to restrictions such as quarantine regulations, but didn’t clarify whether he thinks this was aimed at community protection.

In his analysis, herd immunity will come when a large number of Israelis recover after Omicron infection, complementing the immunity that has been gained from vaccines. “We will see a higher number of recovered people after Omicron,” he said. “All together, the recovered people plus the vaccinated and boosted people will give us herd immunity.”

A Magen David worker take a COVID-19 rapid antigen test to detect coronavirus, at a screening center in Jerusalem, on December 30, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Such herd immunity could give Israel protection against future variants, he assessed, saying that while there are differences between variants, many are broadly similar. “Gradually you will have herd immunity — this is the way that epidemics and pandemics go,” he said.

By contrast, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, said Monday that the notion of reaching herd immunity via mass Omicron infection was unsupportable. “We don’t know if there’ll be a wave that will wash over [us all] and all will be good afterward, and then there’ll be some kind of immunity,” she told Channel 13 news.

Pressed on that point, Alroy-Preis noted that the virus has continued to mutate since it first emerged in China in late 2019. “We see that Omicron infects people who are recovering [from previous variants],” she said. “How can I be sure that the next variant won’t infect people who caught Omicron? I can’t give weight to these predictions [of herd immunity].”

Though it would result in a high number of infections, Gamzu said that suggestions from other countries that Omicron is relatively mild will be true in Israel as well, and this wave wouldn’t put more people in ICUs than the last wave.

He insisted that maintaining restrictions on entry to Israel are pointless, as attempts to keep Omicron out are no longer relevant. “You close borders in order to delay the entrance of the variant or the number of cases of the variant coming to your country,” he said. “Once the variant is here and is spreading it’s useless to close the gate, there’s no logic behind that.” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Sunday the skies are likely to reopen in the next week.

A largely empty departure hall at Ben Gurion International Airport, on December 21, 2021. (Flash90)

On Monday Bennett hailed the introduction of fourth shots, saying: “The fourth vaccination campaign is a great success. Within a day of our announcement of a fourth vaccine, 100,000 Israelis have already been vaccinated or have made an appointment.

“Vaccines protect us from serious illness and quarantine, and the public understands that,” he said.

Gamzu said the decision to give fourth shots to the elderly, immunosuppressed and medical workers makes sense, while predicting  that Israel won’t need to give fourth doses to healthy under-60s in order to fight Omicron.

An Israeli man aged 60-plus receives a 4th dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, at a Clallit vaccine center in Jerusalem on January 3, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“Boosting the immune response was successful in the Delta wave,” he said. “We didn’t have much evidence [now, during the Omicron wave] but it was pure logic. We saw reduction in levels of antibodies, and we saw a correlated increase in vaccinated people being infected, and we decided to go for the booster, because it made sense that boosting the immune response will again protect us and lower the cases of infection. This is the same thing we are facing now.”

Gamzu said that research at his hospital, tracking antibody levels in people after various shots, supports a policy of repeated boosting. “We saw a drop in the [antibody] levels and a drop in the immune response. At the same time we have seen the same phenomenon as four to five months after the second shot an increase in the number of boosted people catching COVID. One plus one is two. The logic remains here [in relation to fourth shots]. The immune response wanes a little bit and the possibility for infection increases.”

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