Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was slated to meet Wednesday with top health officials to weigh moving toward approving the Pfizer COVID vaccine for children ages 5-11.
The meeting, which will include Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and the ministry’s top coronavirus advisers, comes after a panel at the US Food and Drug Administration voted Tuesday evening to endorse giving low doses of the Pfizer vaccine to children.
The FDA’s advisory panel voted unanimously, with one abstention, that the vaccine’s benefits in preventing COVID-19 in that age group outweigh any potential risks — including a heart-related side effect that’s been very rare in teens and young adults who get a much higher dose. Israeli health experts have indicated that local approval is widely expected to follow the FDA example, and vaccines in children under 12 could begin as early as mid-November.
“I believe that in a few weeks we will begin vaccinating children in Israel,” Health Ministry director general Nachman Ash said on Wednesday morning, later predicting that the drive would begin in late November. “We’re talking about a vaccine that is different from the one for adults — it is a lower dosage and able to be injected more easily.” But Ash noted that Israel has yet to receive a shipment of the specially packaged lower dosages from Pfizer.
He said that Israel will still be conducting its own approval process, and that its expert panel will meet next week. “We still have to hold our own hearings, which we are preparing for,” Ash told Ynet. “We want to hold an informed and independent process even after the FDA approval.”
He added that he wanted the approval process for 5- 11-year-olds to be “more transparent this time around, and at least part of the hearing will be public,” along with all of the relevant statistics and data. Ash also said that there will be an opportunity for members of the public “to have their voice heard and people will be able to express their opinions during the hearing.”
Despite the recent dip in coronavirus cases in Israel, Ash urged parents to have their children vaccinated. “We have to be prepared for another wave,” he said. “The more people who are vaccinated, the less severe the wave of infections will be.”
Ash said health officials are already preparing to roll out vaccines to children as quickly as possible. “We will use all available channels to make the vaccine available to all children so there will be no delay in vaccinations,” he told Army Radio, saying that the shots will be administered through health maintenance organizations, in schools and other locations.
But with cases dropping across the country, it is expected that a majority of parents may not bring their children to receive the vaccine anytime soon. Earlier this month, a poll of only Jewish Israelis indicated that 57 percent would vaccinate their children under age 12, while a poll on Sunday showed just 48% of all Israelis parents were likely to give their kids the shot.
Ash said Wednesday that he doesn’t expect a mass rush in the early days of the vaccine rollout, and believes that many parents will be more hesitant. “There are those who are really waiting for it and will show up first and there are those who want to think a little bit longer, and that’s okay too,” he said.
Just 727 Israelis tested positive for coronavirus on Tuesday; a figure that low had not been seen since early July. The positivity rate among those tested on Tuesday stood at 0.85%, a low of close to four months.
Israel began administering the COVID vaccine to children ages 12-15 in June. So far, 56% of those in that age bracket have received at least one dose, and 46% have received both doses. Among those aged 16-19, 86.5% have received at least one dose and 75% have received two doses.
Dr. Tal Brosh, the head of the Health Ministry’s advisory committee for infectious diseases, said parents have a clear choice to make in protecting their children against COVID.
“Parents don’t need to be considering the collective interest, they need to think about their own child,” Brosh told Kan radio on Wednesday. “They should vaccinate their children to prevent them from contracting COVID. The morbidity is generally low but sometimes there are complications.”
Dr. Moshe Ashkenazi, deputy director of the children’s hospital at Sheba Medical Center, said the choice is clear. “There is no reason in the world not to vaccinate children,” he told Army Radio on Wednesday. “There are growing reports in the world of the violence of the Delta variant against young people. In Israel that is not currently the situation, but even here there are higher rates of morbidity in children than in the previous waves.”
A study of elementary schoolchildren found the Pfizer shots are nearly 91% effective at preventing symptomatic infection, even though the youngsters received just a third of the dose given to teens and adults.
As of Wednesday morning, there were 10,914 active coronavirus cases in Israel, with 342 of them hospitalized, 237 in serious condition and 137 of those on ventilators. The number of serious cases is at an almost three-month low, and have been on a steady decline for the past few weeks.
Agencies and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.