More than 40 percent of Israelis have a low level of protection against the omicron variant of COVID-19, putting a significant portion of the population at risk of contracting the virus, one of Israel’s top health experts warned on Sunday.
“The rate of spread [in the U.K.] is dramatically faster – the fastest we have ever seen,” Prof. Ran Balicer, the head of an expert panel advising the Health Ministry, told Army Radio, citing recently released British government data. “It has been shown in the U.K. that the level of protection of two doses against the omicron strain is very low.”
According to the Health Ministry, as of Saturday just over 58 percent of eligible Israelis over the age of 5 are fully vaccinated, meaning that they have received three doses or are within a six-month window following their second dose. A further 9.3 percent are double-vaccinated but have allowed more than six months to pass without getting a booster shot, while 32.4 percent are unvaccinated.
This means that, according to Balicer, nearly 42 percent of Israelis are insufficiently protected against the latest variant.
However, according to data released by the U.K. Health Security Agency on Friday, when boosted with a dose of the Pfizer vaccine, there was around 70 percent protection against symptomatic infection for people who initially received the AstraZeneca vaccine, and around 75 percent protection for those who received the Pfizer one. This is in line with a recent Israeli study that found a third dose reduces the risk of COVID-related death by 90 percent among patients aged 50 and older.
His comments echoed Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, director of Israel's public health services, who told Haaretz last month that unvaccinated and partially vaccinated individuals, including children, are currently the primary vectors for the spread of the virus.
Israelis who have let more than six months pass since their second shot without going for a third one “feel that they’re covered, but with waning immunity that is not the case,” Alroy-Preis warned. “Their protection is wearing off.”
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6.41 million Israelis have received one dose of the vaccine, while 5.8 million have received two and 4.1 million have received a third shot.
Addressing the cabinet on Sunday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said that Israel’s national strategy to combat the spread of omicron consisted of a combination of travel restrictions and vaccination, stating that “the truth is that at the moment we are not sufficiently protected.”
Calling on adult citizens to get boosters and parents to vaccinate their children, Bennett said that people need to “go out and take advantage of these precious days” because “we will not succeed in forever delaying omicron.”
Since Israel authorized the vaccine for five- to 11-year-olds three weeks ago, just 110,000 have received the jab out of a possible 1.2 million. From Sunday morning, Israel also permitted the administration of vaccines in schools.
On Saturday evening, Bennett spoke with the heads of Israel's four major health maintenance organizations about “increasing the scope of vaccinations among the public,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.
Bennett also announced on Saturday that the list of "red" countries categorized as high-risk will be reexamined on a daily basis, in light of the discovery of 20 new omicron cases and a three-month peak in the COVID infection rate.
Travel to and from "red" countries is expressly forbidden, unless permission is granted by a special committee. On Sunday, Israel extended the restrictions at Ben-Gurion International Airport for a further ten days, and health officials are set to add further countries to the red list in the coming days.
In a meeting of coalition party leaders on Saturday evening, it was also decided that Green Pass restrictions would also be introduced to shopping malls, barring entry to unvaccinated Israelis.
Following the new omicron infections discovered on Saturday, Israel's total number of known cases of the variant now stands at 55, with 36 of the carriers returning from the U.K. France, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Belarus, Hungary, Italy and Namibia.
Health Ministry data on Saturday also revealed that another 51 people are strongly suspected of having been infected with the variant, but the results of the final tests haven’t yet been received.
On top of the new strain, the Health Ministry recorded a three-month peak in the spread of the virus. The R number – the average number of people each COVID carrier infects – reached 1.09. Nine day ago, the figure stood at 1.03. A total of 8,210 Israeli have died from the coronavirus, including two in the last week.
The data also showed the number of serious cases remaining largely stable at 100, down from the 150 seen a month earlier. 88 percent of them are unvaccinated or unboostered Israelis.
Reuters contributed to this report.