Senior Israeli health officials approved Wednesday evening the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for use in children ages 5 to 11, as the country is set to further loosen restrictions.
The recommendation was made by the Health Ministry’s coronavirus vaccine committee and the team in charge of epidemics. Out of the 75 experts on the panel, 73 health experts voted in favor of approving the vaccine, with two voting against.
The experts also recommended vaccinating children who have recovered from the virus, with 57 backing the move and eight opposing it. Of those in favor, 34 recommended vaccinating children after a certain period of time had passed since their recovery, while 23 supported their vaccination regardless of the time of recovery.
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Implementing the move will require the final approval of Health Ministry Director General Prof. Nachman Ash.
After his approval, Israel's public health system will prepare for a countrywide vaccination campaign, which will require vials containing smaller, 10 microgram doses of the vaccine – and the involvement of the country’s four health maintenance organizations, which will administer them.
It is not clear precisely when the vaccination campaign will begin, but it is expected to start within the next 10 days.
Dr. Tal Brosh, the head of the Health Ministry's team in charge of epidemics, said that the ministry seeks to "administer the shots within the short timeframe of three weeks – just as we did with adults – because it creates immunity faster.
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"In the next meeting, we will discuss whether there is room to make an exception and increase the timeframe between the shots. It's a complex issue, the relevant data is not yet satisfactory and the last word on the matter hasn't been said yet," Brosh said.
He added that the experts still disagree over whether to vaccinate children who have already recovered from COVID.
"Recovered children can still be infected with the coronavirus and may sometimes develop severe symptoms. We have not yet managed to reach a unanimous decision and the Health Ministry will table the decision until a recommendation is agreed upon," Brosh added.
Until now, only Israelis 12 and over have been eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations, with rare exceptions. The vials of vaccine for the younger age group are due to arrive in Israel in the next several days.
At its session on Wednesday, the panel addressed how to administer the vaccine and when to begin the vaccination drive, a committee member told Haaretz ahead of the discussion.
After the vaccination campaign is approved, the Health Ministry will make the necessary arrangements with Israel's HMOs, using all means at the ministry’s disposal, including assistance from the Israeli army’s Home Front Command, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said.
“We are making preparations with the HMOs but also with the schools,” Prof. Salman Zarka, the Health Ministry’s coronavirus czar, added.
“At the first stage, we will make the HMOs the priority because we assume that at these ages, the parents will want to be more involved and come with [their children] to the clinics to receive the vaccine. In any event, there won’t be any limitations when it comes to access to the vaccines.”
At the request of committee members themselves, Wednesday evening’s deliberations and the committee vote was not broadcast to the public due to concerns over harsh rhetoric and threats. Still, the decision not to broadcast the proceedings has drawn criticism. It follows an initial session last week that was broadcast live and included the presentation of data by experts, a public hearing and answers to questions from members of the public.
When it comes to the decision not to broadcast this week’s decisive session, Horowitz said some of the experts did not want public exposure. “These are people who are not elected officials and are doing it as volunteers. Unfortunately they are being exposed to threats, slander and persecution, which they are not interested in and cannot be imposed on them. In any event, the data that the experts are discussing is being presented in a transparent manner. We’re not hiding anything.”
In the United States, the FDA and CDC are recommending the vaccine for children,” the health minister noted, referring to the Food and Drug Administration and the Center for Disease Control. “If our experts also decide to approve it, there will be vaccine for everyone who wants to be vaccinated. We will make all the information accessible to parents, and every parent will make their own decision concerning their children,” but there won’t be coercion, Horowitz said. “We aren’t forcing it on anyone and not requiring it of anyone. We are explaining how good and important it is.”
Last week, the Israel Pediatric Association issued a position paper supporting a recommendation in favor of vaccinating children 5 and up. According to the data in the paper, from the beginning of the pandemic in Israel through October of this year, 398 children have been hospitalized in moderate, serious or critical condition due to COVID-19.
Approximately 150 children have also been hospitalized with PIMS – Pediatric Inflammatory Multisystem Syndrome – which is known at a later stage to affect some children who had been infected with the coronavirus. The position paper pegged the risk of hospitalization among confirmed COVID-19 patients at 1 out of 900 children.
The pediatricians noted that in large-scale studies, the vaccine has been found to have an excellent safety profile for children 12 and up. “The Pfizer study regarding the vaccination of children from 5 to 11 also has an excellent safety profile,” the position paper said.
The paper also addressed the side effect of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, which has been found with greater frequency among young people (primarily males between the age of 16 and 19 so far). The association of pediatricians said it expects the rate of myocarditis among children between the ages of 5 to 11 will be equal or lower than for the adolescents – but not higher.