Israel's COVID Panel Says COVID Omicron Wave Is 'A Tsunami'

Panel's head says the main impetus for recommending a second COVID booster shot was the spread of the omicron variant, but adds 'it’s still on ice'

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Haaretz
A man receiving a COVID test in Jerusalem, on Wednesday.
A man receiving a COVID test in Jerusalem, on Wednesday. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
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Haaretz

The head of Israel's pandemic advisory panel said Wednesday that the COVID omicron variant, is “a kind of tsunami or tornado," a day after the panel recommended a second booster shot for people 60 and older, people with compromised immune systems and medical personnel.

It is not yet clear when the recommendation will take effect.

We issued a recommendation, but it’s still on ice,” the panel’s chairman, Dr. Boaz Lev, said in a press conference. “It’s not yet clear when it will be implemented. No decision has been made yet, and it hasn’t been adopted by the Health Ministry’s director general yet. We’re still gathering data.”

Lev said the main impetus for the recommendation was the spread of the omicron variant. The variant “is off and running and trampling over everything in its way,” he continued, and the effectiveness of the third dose of the vaccine seems to be waning.

He also cited other reasons for the panel’s decision. One, he said, is the evidence that the effectiveness of the third dose wanes over time, especially when confronted with omicron.

Another is that the cost of excess caution might well be increased incidence of severe illness and death, though there is no way of knowing how much. In contrast, he said, the cost of giving high-risk groups another dose is very small, given the likelihood that it will boost people’s antibody levels – thereby saving lives – and the limited risk of serious side effects.

This kind of calculation, he added, is necessary when you are managing risks under conditions of uncertainty. Nevertheless, he said, the panel plans to spend the coming days gathering as much data as possible from countries where omicron is already rampant, and this data will be considered when the final decision is made.

Omicron’s reproduction number, meaning how many people each patient infects, ranges from three to almost five in other countries, Lev said. “In Britain, the R number is 4.8, in Germany it’s 3.1 and in the U.S. it’s close to three. These are enormous reproduction numbers that we haven’t seen in the past.”

Aside from recommending a fourth dose for certain groups, the panel recommended that the third dose be given three months after the second, rather than five as had previously been done. But all its recommendations still need approval from the Health Ministry’s director general, Nachman Ash.

Brosh said there is still “great uncertainty over how much serious illness this wave will bring, but we can’t be naïve and assume this is a very weak virus that won’t do anything.”

Even if omicron proves to cause less serious illness, he explained, it is expected to infect twice as many people as previous variants and will therefore still result in many seriously ill patients.

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