Israel will begin offering a third shot of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to people aged over 60, a world first in efforts to slow the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, a healthcare provider and Israeli media said on Thursday.
Those eligible will be able to get the booster shot starting on Sunday as long as they received their second dose more than five months ago, Maccabi Healthcare Services said in a statement that confirmed reports on Channel 13 TV and Kan public radio.
Israel was a world leader in the vaccination rollout, with many seniors getting their shots in December, January and February as they were regarded as the most vulnerable sector of the population.
But since the emergence of the Delta variant, the health ministry has twice reported a drop in the vaccine’s efficacy against infection and a slight decrease in its protection against severe disease.
The booster campaign, due to be launched by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at a news conference later in the day, will effectively turn Israel into a testing ground for a third dose before approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Pfizer said on Wednesday it believes people need the additional dose to keep protection against the coronavirus high. The company says it could apply for U.S. emergency authorization for booster shots as early as August.
A panel of Israeli vaccination experts advising the health ministry gave approval for the campaign late on Wednesday.
Maccabi, one of Israel’s largest healthcare providers, said in its statement that eligible patients were welcome to schedule their vaccination appointment via the Internet or its call center.
Last week, the health ministry estimated the Pfizer vaccine was only 41% effective at halting symptomatic infections over the past month. Protection against severe disease remained strong at 91%.
Some experts have criticized the ministry’s analysis because of possible bias that could be skewing the data. Others said Israel should wait a little longer to receive more information about the safety and effectiveness of a third shot.
Around 57% of Israel’s 9.3 million population has been vaccinated. Around 160 people are hospitalized with severe symptoms and daily new infections have spiked to more than 2,000, up from a handful of cases per day a few months ago.
The cabinet is hoping that the vaccines will allow it to avoid costly lockdowns by protecting those most vulnerable from severe illness.