Israel said on Sunday it will begin offering a third dose of Pfizer- BioNTech vaccine to adults with weak immune systems, but it was still weighing whether to make the booster available to the general public.
The rapid spread of the delta variant has sent vaccination rates in Israel back up as new infections have risen over the past month from single digits to around 450 a day, and the country has moved to fast-track its next Pfizer shipment.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said that effective immediately, adults with impaired immune systems who had received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine could get a booster shot, with a decision pending on wider distribution.
Israel's newly appointed director-general of the Health Ministry, Prof. Nachman Ash, is expected to approve on Monday the order which authorizes health maintenance offices in Israel to offer a third jab to adults with impaired immune system.
Moreover, the panel of coronavirus experts advising the Health Ministry recommended on Sunday evening to vaccinate children under the age of 12 with preexisting medical conditions, or children living in a household where at least one person is at increased risk of serious illness.
In case a decision to inoculate the children is made, each case will require an approval by the Health Ministry.
Pfizer and partner BioNTech SE, the main suppliers in a swift Israeli vaccination rollout that began in December, said on Thursday they will ask U.S. and European regulators within weeks to authorize booster shots.
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The two companies cited an increased risk of infection after six months in seeking permission for a third shot.
Drawing criticism from some scientists and officials, the companies did not share the data showing that risk, but said it would soon be made public. They also cited recent Israeli data.
"We are examining this issue and we still do not have a final answer," Horowitz, speaking on Kan public radio, said about a booster for the general population in Israel.
"In any case we are administering as of now a third shot to people suffering from immunodeficiency."
Israel's pandemic task force and Israel's Vaccination Follow-Up Committee convened last week around the issue of offering a third dose to the general public. However, as of now, it seems that a third dose of vaccination will be administered only to adults who have weak immune system.
About half of the 46 patients presently hospitalized in Israel in severe condition are vaccinated, and the majority are from risk groups, according to the health authorities. About 5.7 million out of Israel 9.3 population has received at least one dose.
Israel was not going to rush into any decision on booster shots for the general public, Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health at the Health Ministry said.
"It's rather complex. We're presently seeing outbreaks largely among children and their parents who weren't necessarily vaccinated in January and February and we need to identify the (statistical) biases," Alroy-Preis told Kan.
It was still unclear, Alroy-Preis added, whether the vaccine was simply less effective against the Delta variant and if illness rates among those vaccinated in January and February were higher than for those who were inoculated later.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in broadcast remarks to his cabinet on Sunday that he has agreed with Pfizer to bring forward the next delivery of doses to August 1. The shipment had been widely expected to arrive in September.
The Health Ministry clarified in a statement that Israelis seeking to receive their first dose of the vaccine can do that starting Monday, following reports of supply shortages.
There was no immediate response from Pfizer to a request for comment.