Israelis aged 40 and over will be able to receive a Covid-19 booster shot from Friday as health experts concluded the third dose gives increased protection against serious illness.
Teachers and pregnant women will also be eligible and the rollout will be gradually extended to the entire population in the coming weeks.
Israel was the first country in the world to start vaccinating sectors of its population with a third dose on July 30th, beginning with the over-60s and, a few weeks later, extending the drive to the over-50s. More than one million Israelis have already received the booster.
New data released on Thursday by the health ministry confirmed that the booster appears to cause fewer side-effects than the first two shots.
Visiting the Israeli Arab town of Taibe on Thursday in an effort to combat low vaccination rates among Arab citizens, prime minister Naftali Bennett said that while the vaccines were highly effective, their efficacy decreased with time.
“Just like we charge our phones or put petrol in the car, we need to ‘top up’ the body’s defence. So the third dose is critical. Most of the fatalities, the vast majority, were not fully vaccinated,” he said.
Dr Mike Ryan, the Irish-born executive director of the World Health Organisation's emergency programme, said on Wednesday that the "science is not certain" on any potential benefit of booster doses.
The WHO has urged wealthy countries to share their vaccines with poor nations rather than administer booster shots.
Despite the rapid rollout of Israel’s first and second vaccine doses, cases of Covid-19 are rising in Israel at one of the highest rates in the world.
Earlier this week, it recorded more than 8,000 cases in a day for the first time since February 1st, while the tally of serious cases in hospitals passed the threshold of 600 for the first time since March as Israel battles the spread of the Delta variant.
Starting to work
However, health officials say there are signs the booster is beginning to work.
“In the last two days, we have seen a real slowdown in the number of new infections among people aged 60 and over, most of whom are vaccinated with the third vaccine dose,” said Prof Ran Balicer, who heads a panel of medical professionals advising the health ministry on the pandemic.
Another top expert advising the government, Prof Gabi Barbash, said that those vaccinated with a booster shot are six to eight times less likely to have a severe case of the disease.
The decision to extend the booster rollout came a day after the Pfizer vaccine – the only one used in Israel to date – was shown to be 86 per cent effective in preventing infection among those aged 60 and older, starting seven days after the booster is administered, according to initial results published by Maccabi Healthcare Services.
"The vaccine has again proved its effectiveness," said Dr Anat Ekka Zohar, who led the study. "It has also demonstrated protection against the Delta variant. The triple dose is the solution to curbing the current outbreak."