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PM set to back 3rd vaccine dose for older Israelis after nod from expert panel

Government-appointed board gives approval to boosters after seeing data revealing drop in vaccine effectiveness over time for ages 60-plus; Health Ministry chief’s approval needed

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visits the Migdal Nofim retirement home in Jerusalem on July 27, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visits the Migdal Nofim retirement home in Jerusalem on July 27, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is expected to announce his support for older Israelis to receive a third dose of the coronavirus vaccine after a government-appointed panel of health experts gave a nod to the trailblazing initiative on Wednesday evening.

The panel’s position will be presented to Bennett and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz during a Thursday morning meeting, after which the prime minister is expected to announce his backing for Israelis above the age of 60 to receive a third dose of the vaccine.

The vote by the panel was not unanimous, according to Hebrew media, but a majority supported booster shots for older Israelis, against the backdrop of the rising number of seriously ill patients in recent weeks.

The number of new seriously ill patients climbed from 20 on Monday to 33 on Tuesday to 41 on Wednesday.

Health officials estimate that there will be 1,000 patients in serious condition in total by the end of August.

During the Wednesday night discussion, the panel was presented with a figure that showed the effectiveness of the vaccine in preventing serious illness among those above the age of 60 who were vaccinated in January dropped from 97% in April to 81% in July.

While most experts backed giving a third dose to Israelis above the age of 60, some preferred raising the threshold to 65 years old. Haaretz cited anonymous experts who expressed concern over the lack of data on the third dose while also acknowledging that postponing a decision on the matter could have disastrous consequences.

A man receives a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine at Sheba Medical Center on July 12, 2021. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The panel was also presented figures from the UK where the drop in the vaccine’s effectiveness wasn’t as stark, possibly because recipients there had to wait three months between the first and second doses, as opposed to Israelis who waited roughly three weeks.

Once Bennett makes his decision, the matter will fall to Health Ministry director Nachman Ash, whose approval is required for the more widespread rollout of the third dose. Israel began administering a third booster shot two weeks ago to those with severely compromised immune systems, setting a world precedent.

Bennett already indicated on Tuesday that Israel was heading toward the distribution of a booster shot.

“We’re on top of it, believe me,” said Bennett during a visit to a retirement home in Jerusalem. “For at least a month [we’ve been working on] things that need to come to fruition. We’re very close. The less we talk about it, the greater chance it’ll happen. I’m on it.”

Some analysts have warned that the figures on vaccine effectiveness are prone to major inaccuracies because of a range of factors, including questions over whether there is accurate data on infection levels among the non-vaccinated, which is vital for such stats.

Foreign workers and asylum seekers lacking medical insurance receive the COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in South Tel Aviv on July 28, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Bennett reiterated his call on Tuesday for anyone eligible who is still not vaccinated to do so as soon as possible.

Health Ministry figures showed that 2,269 Israelis tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, a high not seen since mid-March. There were 149 serious cases in Israel on Wednesday, more than double the figure one week ago.

On Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious diseases expert, said the issue of booster shots is under discussion.

Fauci said government experts are reviewing early data as they consider whether to recommend that vaccinated individuals get booster shots. He suggested that some of the most vulnerable, such as organ transplant and cancer patients, are “likely” to be recommended for booster shots.

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