Fourth COVID-19 shot to be administered starting Sunday - health minister

Man thought to have died with Omicron had Delta * FDA approves Pfizer’s antiviral COVID-19 pill.

 A photo illustration showing ampoules of Covid-19 vaccine for children at a Clallit vaccine center in Jerusalem on November 28, 2021. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
A photo illustration showing ampoules of Covid-19 vaccine for children at a Clallit vaccine center in Jerusalem on November 28, 2021.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Israel will begin administering fourth shots beginning on Sunday, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said Wednesday in an interview. 

He told KAN News that eligible individuals will be able to get the jab even without an appointment.

The announcement came following a late-night decision by the Pandemic Response Team and COVID-19 Vaccination Advisory Board that fourth shots could be given to citizens over the age of 60 and healthcare workers to help stop the spread of the Omicron variant

The vaccines will be available to anyone who meets the criteria four months after their third shot, the committee said. 

The move sparked controversy among some in the medical community, who said the move was unprecedented and lacked data. 

 Children receive their dose of Covid-19 vaccine, at a Clallit vaccine center in Jerusalem on December16, 2021. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) Children receive their dose of Covid-19 vaccine, at a Clallit vaccine center in Jerusalem on December16, 2021. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer was supposed to launch a clinical trial to determine the safety and effectiveness of a fourth shot, but the trial has still not been approved by the Health Ministry. If such a trial were done, within a few weeks, Israel would have a better indication of whether or not a fourth shot was really necessary. 

“We do not have much time to make decisions,” vaccine committee chair Dr. Boaz Lev said in a press briefing on Wednesday. “If we do not vaccinate, the price is going to be greater.” 

Experts at the press conference pointed out that the decision to inoculate was centered on the fact that immunity after the third vaccine is waning, something that Clalit’s Chief Innovation Officer Prof. Ran Balicer validated in a separate briefing earlier in the day.

“We are gathering data on the third shot now,” he said. “We just started boosters in August, so only about four month ago. But the Health Ministry is following the data and they think the booster starts to wane three to five months after [it is given] and this is having an impact on infection without a doubt.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Horowitz both immediately praised the move late Wednesday night. Bennett’s office put out a statement in which he said that the fourth shot will “help us overcome the Omicron wave that is sweeping the world.”

He noted that Israel was the first in the world to provide a third shot and will lead in giving the fourth shot too. 

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention already provides a fourth shot to immunocompromised people. In October, the CDC updated its guidelines saying that moderately or severely immunocompromised people who receive three shots as their primary dose can receive a booster dose, too, for a total of four COVID-19 vaccine doses.

“Another vaccine for people over the age of 60 and for medical staff of all ages,” tweeted Horowitz. “This is our top priority for Omicron: Protecting the adults who are most vulnerable and keeping the medical staff safe.

“No need to wait,” he continued. “Go get vaccinated.”

Bennett called on the Home Front Command, senior health officials and all of the health funds to prepare for it. Meuhedet Health Services put out a statement on Wednesday stating that they were “preparing to give a fourth booster dose” and that the fund was going to provide this shot at some 139 vaccination complexes across the country. 

The Pandemic Response Team also recommended that the waiting period between the second and third vaccine be reduced from five to three months. 

On Wednesday, the Health Ministry announced that Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company that has provided the vast majority of vaccines administered in Israel, extended the expiration date of some batches of vaccines in the country for three months. This will help ensure there are enough vaccines for the children and the fourth shot campaign, although the announcement was not connected.

The country’s vaccination campaign has started to pick up in the last week, according to the health funds. Meuhedet, for example, said there was a 16% increase in the response to vaccines for children between the ages of 5-11 so far this week and a 34% increase in people coming out to get vaccinated overall. 

Similarly, Maccabi reported a 46% increase in vaccinations.

So far, Israel has registered 341 confirmed Omicron cases and another 800 individuals are highly suspected to have been infected.

On Wednesday, it emerged that the Israeli who the country thought had died after being infected with the Omicron variant was actually carrying Delta, Soroka Medical Center reported.

The 68-year-old man passed away on Monday. He was infected with coronavirus but was also suffering from multiple underlying medical conditions.

While there have been cases of people dying from and with the variant abroad, the man would have been Israel’s first case.

The number of daily cases in the country has continued to climb, though most of the new cases have not yet been sequenced and are not confirmed as Omicron.

There were 1,200 new cases diagnosed on Tuesday, the ministry said Wednesday. A week earlier there were 701.

In the past seven days, some 6,167 virus carriers have been identified in Israel, marking a staggering 48% increase from the previous week.

Clalit Health Services said that the fund alone has seen a 20% increase in the demand for coronavirus PCR tests in the last two days. 

At the same time, serious morbidity remained stable with only 79 people in serious conditions, a number similar to previous days.

Pfizer said on Wednesday the US Food and Drug Administration authorized its antiviral COVID-19 pill, making it the first at-home treatment for the coronavirus that is expected to become a crucial tool in the fight against the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

Data from Pfizer's clinical trial showed its two-drug antiviral regimen was 90% effective in preventing hospitalizations and deaths in patients at high risk of severe illness. Recent lab data suggests the drug retains its effectiveness against Omicron.

The agency authorized the oral drug for the treatment of high-risk adult patients and pediatric patients at least 12 years of age with COVID-19 outside of the hospital.

The company said it was ready to start immediate delivery in the US and raised its production projections to 120 million courses of treatment from 80 million in 2022.

The US government's contract for 10 million courses of the Pfizer drug is priced at $530 per course.

The Pfizer pills, taken with the older antiviral drug ritonavir, will be sold under the brand name Paxlovid. The pills are meant to be taken every 12 hours for five days beginning shortly after the onset of symptoms.

Pfizer said it plans to file a new drug application with the FDA in 2022 for potential full regulatory approval.

Reuters contributed to this report.