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Study finds 1 in 3 young teens had COVID, fueling debate over need for vaccine

Government launches campaign for minors as planned, though immunity from illness more widespread among them than previously believed

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

An Israeli child receives a COVID-19 vaccine, at Clalit Covid-19 vaccination center in Petah Tikva, on June 6, 2021. (Flash90)
An Israeli child receives a COVID-19 vaccine, at Clalit Covid-19 vaccination center in Petah Tikva, on June 6, 2021. (Flash90)

Nearly one-third of young Israelis who became eligible for COVID vaccines today have already had the virus, new data has indicated, raising questions about the necessity of the additional vaccination campaign.

Some 21 percent of under-17s had antibodies for the virus, according to the results of a Health Ministry survey seen by The Times of Israel on Sunday. Among 12 to 15-year-olds, who became eligible for vaccines on Sunday, some 30% of those sampled tested positive for antibodies.

“It’s a higher number than we expected, and we understand from this that widespread immunity among kids has been supporting Israel’s wider herd immunity,” Dr. Arnon Afek, deputy-director of Sheba Medical Center and an adviser to the coronavirus czar, told The Times of Israel.

According to another expert, Prof. Mordechai Gerlic from Tel Aviv University’s Center for Combating Pandemics, the data “suggests that there’s some type of herd immunity among young people, at least right now, which partly explains why there are hardly any outbreaks among schoolchildren despite school studies having resumed weeks ago.”

An Israeli kid in a drive through complex to check if he has been infected with the Covid-19, in Netanya, on April 13, 2021. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)

Children, ineligible for vaccines until this week, have been seen as the Achilles heel of Israel’s COVID protection. Regardless of the new data, the government still sees vaccinating them as important, and launched inoculations for minors as planned. But Gerlic thinks that the new data, which indicates many are already immune, should prompt a policy rethink.

“This supports the idea we don’t need to rush to vaccinate kids,” he said, noting that high vaccination rates among adults have brought coronavirus spread to an all-time low, and that the vaccine has only been approved on an emergency-use basis.

“I don’t think we need to go and vaccinate our kids right now,” Gerlic added.

Prof. Arnon Afek of Sheba Medical Center (Shai Pereg)

Afek strongly disagreed, saying that Israelis need to recognize that the pandemic is still in full swing internationally, and should continue taking steps to protect their children from infection.

The data was drawn from serological tests for 2,700 children collected and collated by the Health Ministry between January and March. It suggests that the number of children who caught COVID is far higher than the number confirmed positive by swab tests.

Blood samples were taken from populations across a wide geographical, ethnic and socioeconomic background, the Health Ministry stressed in correspondence with The Times of Israel. “The rates were higher in children of low socioeconomic status, and from the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv districts,” the ministry noted.

Mordechai Gerlic (left) with his colleague Ariel Munitz from Tel Aviv University’s TAU Center for Combatting Pandemics (courtesy of Tel Aviv University)

“Now we are not in an emergency situation in Israel, and we should not act as if we are,” Gerlic said, adding that the country now has the luxury of allowing more time to fully understand any possible vaccine side effects, including myocarditis.

The Health Ministry found a probable link between the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine, the main shot Israel is using to vaccinate its population, and cases of myocarditis. It focused on 275 cases of myocarditis that were reported between December 2020 and May 2021, among more than 5 million vaccinated people.

But Afek said that people should be clear that the dangers of the coronavirus far outweigh side effect worries, and argued: “It’s a parental choice, but there is still a very clear rationale for children taking the vaccine.”

He said the state is right to apply less pressure for the vaccination of children than it did with adults, but that putting vaccine plans on hold would be going too far.

“I believe we should vaccinate the children because the epidemic in the entire world is still ongoing, we might have more vaccine-resistant variants coming to Israel, because children have immuno-compromised relatives whom they can harm if infected, and also because some children might get sick and also have complications from the coronavirus,” Afek said.

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