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Pfizer, Moderna both trying for 3rd dose booster shots to combat virus variants

Pfizer CEO echoes Netanyahu, UK authorities in saying strains of coronavirus likely to remain around indefinitely

A nurse administers a Pfizer/Biontech COVID-19 vaccine to a health care worker in Liege, Belgium, January 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
A nurse administers a Pfizer/Biontech COVID-19 vaccine to a health care worker in Liege, Belgium, January 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

The head of US pharmaceutical company Pfizer said Tuesday the company is working on booster shots to help its vaccine protect against coronavirus variants, as mutated strains of the virus continue to spread worldwide.

US biotechnology firm Moderna said Monday it will test adding a booster of its vaccine, making it three shots in total, to help it defend against a South African variant.

“Every time a new variant comes up we should be able to test whether or not [our vaccine] is effective,” Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told Bloomberg news. “Once we discover something that is not as effective, we will very, very quickly be able to produce a booster dose that will be a small variation to the current vaccine.”

Bourla said the coronavirus will probably not be completely eliminated, but will be reduced through pharmaceuticals to an illness like the common flu, with people getting an annual shot to defend against new strains.

Pfizer developed its vaccine with the German biotechnology company BioNTech.

Moderna said its vaccine will remain protective against the variants first identified in the UK and South Africa, although the shot appeared to be less effective against the South African strain.

Israeli officials including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have blamed the British strain for Israel’s third wave outbreak, which is raging unabated despite the successful vaccine campaign and a weeks-long nationwide lockdown.

Netanyahu issued a warning about virus mutations on Wednesday while 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.”

Medical personnel in the coronavirus ward of Ziv Medical Center in the northern city of Safed, January 27, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The British government’s chief scientific adviser said last week that the UK variant likely carries a higher risk of death than the original strain and that the virus is “going to be around, probably, forever.”

Israel mainly uses the Pfizer vaccine and has also received shipments of Moderna’s shot. 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.

On Wednesday the Health Ministry extended the vaccination campaign to anyone over the age of 35.

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 death rate, test positivity rate, number of infections and number of serious cases have remained alarmingly high in Israel for weeks. Over 25 percent of the 4,605 Israelis who have died of COVID-19 succumbed to the 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.

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.

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