The Israeli prime minister announced on Thursday that the country would offer a coronavirus booster to people over 60 who have already been vaccinated.
The announcement by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett makes Israel, which launched one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns early this year, the first country to widely offer a third dose of a Western vaccine to its citizens.
“I’m announcing tonight the start of the campaign to receive the booster vaccine, the third vaccine,” Bennett said in a nationally televised address. “Reality proves that the vaccines are safe. Reality also proves that the vaccines protect against severe morbidity and death. And just like the flu vaccine that needs to be renewed from time to time, it’s the same in this case.”
The decision comes at a time of increasing infections and signs that the vaccine’s effectiveness is declining over time.
Anyone over the age of 60 who has been vaccinated more than five months ago is eligible. Bennett said the country’s new president, Isaac Herzog, will be the first to receive the booster on Friday. It will be offered to the general public on Sunday.
Bennett, who is 49, said his first call after the press conference would be to his mother encouraging her to get her booster shot.
Neither the US nor the EU have approved corona booster shots. It has not yet been proven whether a third dose will help and if so, who needs one and when.
But Bennett said a team of expert advisors overwhelmingly agreed by a margin of 56-1 that launching the booster campaign made sense. He said the recommendation was made after “considerable research and analysis” and the information would be shared around the world. Preliminary studies in Israel have found that vaccine protection against serious illness has declined among those vaccinated in January.
Israel has used the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine on its population. Previously, boosters were used with the Chinese and Russian vaccines in some countries.
Early this year, Israel conducted one of the world’s most aggressive and successful vaccination campaigns, reaching a deal with Pfizer to buy enough vaccines for its population in exchange for sharing its data with the drug manufacturer.
More than 57% of the country’s 9.3 million residents have received two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and more than 80% of the population over 40 has been vaccinated.
The vaccination program allowed Israel to reopen its economy to other countries. But Israel has seen a spike in cases of the new delta variant, even among people who have been vaccinated. Bennett urged unvaccinated Israelis, especially younger people who were hesitant, to get vaccinated immediately.
Earlier this month, Israel began giving immune-compromised individuals a third injection to boost their resilience to COVID-19.
Pfizer said on Wednesday that the vaccine’s effectiveness drops slightly six months after the second dose. Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech have said they plan to seek approval for boosters in August. The World Health Organization said earlier this month that there is not enough evidence to show that a third dose is needed.
Israel’s health ministry recorded at least 2,165 new cases of coronavirus on Thursday after an accelerated rise in infections over the past month. Severe cases of COVID-19 have grown from mid-June 19 to 159 as the highly contagious delta strain has spread.
Thanks to the successful vaccination campaign, Israel lifted almost all of its coronavirus restrictions this spring. But with new cases on the rise, the country has sought to stem the spread of the highly contagious delta strain by re-imposing restrictions on gatherings, re-establishing a “green pass” system for vaccinated people to enter certain enclosed areas, enter, and mandate an inner space mask.