Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced on Thursday a world-first vaccination drive to inoculate people over 60 with a third COVID vaccine dose, starting Sunday.
“Call your parents and grandparents now and make sure they get the third shot,” Bennett told a televised press briefing, claiming there is enough evidence to support the need for a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
"Reality proves the vaccines are safe," Bennett said. "Reality also proves the vaccines protects from severe morbidity and death. And like the flu vaccine that needs to be renewed from time to time, it is the same in this case."
As of Sunday, Israelis over 60 who received their second vaccine dose at least five months ago will be offered the booster shot, which Bennett said “gives your body very strong protection. Get the booster shot; take care of yourselves and those near you.”
President Isaac Herzog will get his booster shot on Friday morning, two days before it is available to the general public.
“There’s competition between the vaccines and the pandemic,” the prime minister said, arguing that having more vaccinated people would let Israel remain open and avoid the need to impose further restrictions.
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Early this year, Israel carried out one of the world's most aggressive and successful vaccination campaigns. Over 57 percent of the country’s 9.3 million citizens have received two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, and over 80 percent of the population over 40 is vaccinated.
Experts advising the Health Ministry recommended on Wednesday that seniors received a third dose, although they disagreed on whether the cohort should start at 60 years old, 65 or 70.
Experts told Haaretz earlier this week that there is still not enough data on the effectiveness and safety of a third dose, but they also expressed concerns about delaying the decision. Some of the data presented at a discussion Wednesday suggested that the vaccine's effectiveness in preventing severe symptoms among those 60 and older has dropped to 81 percent from 97 percent in January.
Neither the U.S. nor the EU have approved coronavirus booster shots. It’s not yet proven if a third dose helps and, if so, who needs one and when. The first large study of the strategy is beginning in thousands of patients in Norway.
Pfizer said on Wednesday it believes people need the additional dose to keep protection against the coronavirus high. The company says it could apply for U.S. emergency authorization for booster shots as early as August.
Two leading Israeli health providers, Maccabi and Clalit, said on Thursday they would begin offering the booster shot. Members of the two health maintenance organizations could register for the third jab as early as Thursday evening, with vaccinations set to start on Sunday.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett declared that Israel was “very close” to making a decision on COVID booster shots, and on obtaining the additional doses needed to make that happen.
Bennett's remarks came two weeks after the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control said there was no need at this time for a third dose, but as Israeli Health Ministry data showed a sharp decline in the vaccine's effectiveness against infection and a slight decline in preventing severe illness.
Prof. Galia Rahav, head of the infectious disease unit at Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv, told Haaretz on Wednesday that she hopes to begin testing a third dose next week. “We're seeing a dramatic drop in the level of immunity, and we know the elderly respond less to vaccines than the young, but we don’t have this data for COVID-19,” she said. She also said that over 4,000 Israelis with suppressed immune systems have already received a third shot, with no severe side effects being shown.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.