Israel’s health ministry last night expanded the country’s booster Covid vaccine programme in an effort to clamp down on its unprecedented fourth wave.
Over-40s and teaching staff of all ages are now eligible for a third jab, marking the second time the scheme has been expanded.
Israel began administering third doses to people over 60 in July, later dropping the minimum age of eligibility to 50 and offering boosters to health workers and others.
The country’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, 49, was the first newly-eligible person to get his booster vaccine today.
More than a million of Israel’s 9.3m population have received a third shot. Israel is in the midst of a spiralling fourth wave that shows no sign of slowing despite its original, world-leading vaccination drive.
The spread of the much more infectious Delta variant as well as waning vaccine immunity after six months is to blame.
Experts told MailOnline today that Israel was ‘the canary in the mine’, providing an important early warning of what could happen in other countries.
They called for the UK Government to push ahead with a mass booster vaccination programme, despite reports last night that a watered down version will go ahead.
The Joint Committee of Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which advises No10, is expected to only green light third doses for vulnerable adults with suppressed immune systems.
The boosters will almost certainly be offered to the 3.7million Britons classified as ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’, with diseases such as cancer.
But originally it was hoped that the programme would be open to all over-50s, key workers and sick patients – which would have included as many as 32m people.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, 49, was the first newly-eligible person to get his booster vaccine today
Israel began administering third doses to people over 60 in July, later dropping the minimum age of eligibility to 50 and offering boosters to health workers and others
Around two-third of people in Israel are fully-vaccinated, and its inoculation drive was the fastest, with the nation hitting the 50 per cent threshold by mid-March. But daily coronavirus infections reached a six-month high of 8,752 on Monday, before falling slightly on Tuesday. And more than half of cases are in fully-jabbed people
Deaths are rising in Israel, despite the high vaccine uptake, with 120 people dying in the last week — similar to levels seen in September, when Israel was in lockdown
Britain’s Covid cases have remained stubbornly high – averaging about 30,000 new infections daily currently – and there are fears that as the country moves into the winter that vaccine-induced immunity could fade
Covid deaths in Britain are still a far cry of the levels seen in previous waves thanks to the jab rollouts but experts have said Israel should serve as a warning that fatalities could rise once more
Israel is reporting a much higher number of cases (755 per million people) than the UK (433 per million people) and US (416 per million people). One expert warned Israel is ‘the canary in the mine’, providing an important early warning of what could happen in other countries
Experts warned the UK will have to rely on boosters in an attempt to avoid a similar crisis and other measures — such as face masks and social distancing —may need to be brought back if there is a rise in breakthrough cases.
Dr Simon Clarke, an associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, told MailOnline: ‘I think we should pay close attention to the situation in Israel.
‘People’s commentary in this country — both from Government and experts — has been deliberately optimistic when perhaps the evidence is not suggesting that.
‘One difference is Israel are only using Pfizer and we have used a lot of different vaccines, but mainly AstraZeneca. There may be differences due to this.
‘But we know the protection offered by the vaccines decreases over time and arguments that the three-week gap between doses in Israels seems to be scooped by studies.
‘So, we need to be aware we could see something similar happening in the coming weeks or months, but that is very much a “could”.
‘There are some differences between societies in the UK and Israel, with people moving around in different ways. With students going back to universities and schools in the UK, infections could trickle down to vulnerable populations.’
It emerged yesterday that a mass booster jab campaign for the over-50s in the UK is now unlikely to begin next month.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said vulnerable adults with suppressed immune systems will still receive third doses.
But officials are dithering over a broader booster programme for all over-50s.
Earlier in the summer, the Government drew up plans for the NHS to re-vaccinate 32million people from September 6.
Dr Simon Clarke (left) at Reading University warned the UK could see a crisis similar to the one in Israel as protection offered by the vaccines decrease over time. Professor Lawrence Young at Warwick University said Israel is the ‘canary in the mine’, providing an important early warning of what could be coming for other countries
The JCVI met yesterday to review evidence on booster jabs but failed to come to a decision.
Sources stressed that ‘nothing is off the table’ and their recommendation could take weeks.
But Dr Clarke added: ‘We need to be ready now and boosters are all we have got.
‘People always mention lockdowns, but they were to protect the NHS and stop it from being overrun.
‘My feeling is we are just looking boosters and any delays to the programmed could cost us, because we would be too slow to protect the vulnerable, as we cannot just vaccinated everyone in a few days.
‘It took months last time, from December to April. We should be starting the programme in September along with flu jabs.
‘With the flu, people get vaccinated in September, but then you do not see cases get bad until January. But this might not be the case with Covid and we could see more cases and deaths sooner than that.’
It comes as daily coronavirus infections in Israel reached a six-month high of 8,752 on Monday, before falling slightly on Tuesday. And more than half are in fully-jabbed people.
Deaths are also rising, with 120 people dying in the last week — similar to levels seen in September, when Israel was in lockdown.
This is despite 62.8 per cent of the population being fully-vaccinated, official statistics show, and its inoculation drive was the fastest, with the nation hitting the 50 per cent threshold by mid-March. Britain and the US didn’t follow suit until July.
Vaccines have blunted the virus, with deaths just a fraction of what they were in previous outbreaks. But no jab is perfect and fatalities are still rising, in line with cases.
Some scientists have pinned the concerning trend on waning immunity and the three-week gap between the jabs dished out in Israel, which were exclusively Pfizer.
Professor Lawrence Young, an expert in molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School, said bluntly: ‘Waning immunity from vaccination is a real concern.
He told MailOnline: ‘Some have called Israel “the canary in the mine” as it provides an important early warning of what could happen here.
He pointed to a recent study from Maccabi Healthcare Services in Israel which foud that protection from Covid infection during June and July dropped in proportion to the length of time since an individual was vaccinated.
‘People vaccinated in January had a 2.26 times greater risk for a breakthrough infection than those vaccinated in April,’ he said.
‘Potential confounders include the fact that the very oldest Israelis, with the weakest immune systems, were vaccinated first.
‘So this is a real issue for the elderly and most vulnerable in the UK who were vaccinated earlier in the year and whose immune responses are not as robust as the younger population. Hence the need for booster vaccination.
‘But booster shots alone are unlikely to be enough. We are likely to need other layers of protection which may mean the re-imposition of restriction measures such as face coverings and social distancing.
‘Added to this is clear evidence that that double vaccinated individuals can still get infected with the Delta variant and spread infection to others.’
But Professor Keith Willison, chair of chemical biology at Imperial College London, told MailOnline the crisis in Israel may be due to specific and complicated cultural reasons.
‘What’s worrying people is the breakthrough cases, where fully vaccinated people are catching the virus and becoming unwell. We just do not know what’s going on because the data is so uncertain.
‘But in Israel, there are some big pockets of anti-vaxxers in the Orthodox Jewish community.
‘So there are groups where only a few are vaccinated, which allows the virus to spread throughout bigger groups and leads to more cases in vaccinated people.
‘I do not think we will see something similar in the UK, because the data is much more encouraging.’
Professor Willison, who is currently in Israel, added: ‘People are going about life as normal, with some restrictions imposed. The country definitely does not want to go back into lockdown.’
Dr Alexander Edwards, associate professor in biomedical technology at the University of Reading, agreed that there were ‘several differences’ between Israel and the UK, including Covid restrictions, vaccination coverage, behaviours and differences in age and health within the populations.
Professor Edwards added: ‘It’s also not always helpful to consider waves, but the UK seems to still be in a ‘third wave’ as we didn’t reduce cases to low levels before the current reopening.
‘It is therefore very hard to make direct comparisons. However, it is notable that there seems to be more discussion about the rising infections and deaths in Israel, than the still high infection rate, and the ongoing significant rate of tragic deaths in the UK.
‘Overall, there are a few simple messages: the vaccines are very effective, but the virus remains extremely dangerous, and so anything we can do to reduce transmission remains critical to local and global populations — not just for the individual’s health, but for economic recovery and to protect our health systems.
‘Get vaccinated, but remember this doesn’t make anyone invincible, and remember you can help the health of others even if you aren’t worried about your own personal health.’
Sir Professor Pollard, one of the scientists behind the Oxford AstraZeneva vaccine and a member of the JCVI, has consistently argued the best use of Covid vaccines would be to administer them to people in other countries who have not yet had a single dose, rather than giving third doses to people in wealthier countries.
Don’t make our costly mistake, Britain: Israeli scientist Professor ERAN SEGAL gives a warning from the front line of new covid surge
There is no question that Israel – the country that led the way with a Covid vaccine roll out for its nine million population – is now experiencing a fourth wave of infections.
And, as is the case in several other countries such as France and Iran, it is deadlier than anyone predicted.
We are seeing the effectiveness of the double Pfizer/BioNTech jab – the vaccine most widely used in my country – waning six months after the second jabs were administered.
That fact, and the spread of the much more infectious Delta variant, is the reason for a sharp rise in infections and hospitalisations especially among the elderly and vulnerable.
Israel is responding with a vigorous programme of booster jabs and I believe our experience may have several implications for Britain and other countries.
My message is two-fold. Firstly, countries must redouble their efforts to persuade vaccine-refuseniks to get their inoculations. Secondly, a policy of booster jabs must be considered for the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. It would be wise to act now to prevent a deadly wave in the UK.
Many scientists and clinicians in Israel were calling for renewed public efforts to persuade the ‘vaccine-resistant’ in the population to have the jab weeks ago. This could have prevented our fourth wave but unfortunately it did not happen.
Now infection rates are rapidly climbing towards the peak last seen in January. At the worst point of the third wave, we were seeing up to 10,000 new cases a day. On Monday there were nearly 9,000. Tragically, that is causing an increasing number of deaths.
Just a few months ago, we were cautiously hopeful that our stringent policy of vaccination was going to beat the virus. But now we are seeing that the combination of a highly transmittable variant, reduced vaccine effectiveness and the 15 per cent of those eligible for the vaccine who remain unvaccinated has changed the course of the pandemic.
We’re only just waking up to these consequences in Israel where, as the first country in the world to vaccinate most of our population, we are also the first to see the impact of the waning effect. Other nations have to take notice and act now.
There’s another unknown in the mix. When we began vaccinating, the Delta variant had not yet surfaced.
Other variants are constantly evolving around the world. What we have yet to find out is whether there will be even more aggressive new variants. That’s the bad news. But the situation is far from hopeless. After a slow start, Israel’s booster jab programme is now operating at maximum capacity. Within two weeks, all the over-60s and over-50s will have been offered the booster.
I’m cautiously hopeful by the time you read this, almost all the over-40s will have been be offered it too.
However, this is not a clinical trial under controlled conditions. It is happening in the real world which means there could be many other factors at play.
Even so, there is growing confidence that the boosters are already having a positive effect. Some commentators are worrying that we will be locked into a cycle of top-up jabs for years to come but that might not be the case: it could be that the immunity effect is cumulative and lasts longer with each new vaccination.
We still don’t know and will need more time. One thing is certain: even if booster jabs are good, first vaccinations are better – both for the individual and for the country, since they increase a person’s immunity from zero to being full vaccinated.
In Israel, there are 1.1million people aged 12 and over who have not been vaccinated. More than half of them are under 30.
I don’t believe that all these people are committed anti-vaxxers. Most just haven’t bothered. But that attitude is hitting the whole country hard now and we must redouble efforts to encourage people to accept their responsibility and get jabbed.
Many people are worried that another lockdown is coming. While it is too early to tell, I believe that, thanks to the boosters, we should be over the worst by mid-September and without a lockdown… though this is not yet certain.
What is certain is that Britain has a chance to learn from our mistakes and avoid the pain of a fourth wave. And the time to start a campaign of booster jabs may be now.
- ERAN SEGAL is a professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science and an advisor to the Israeli government in its response to the pandemic.