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Israel will strip more than a million citizens of their vaccine passports on Sunday, becoming the first country to regulate booster shots as evidence of fully immunised status.
The decision, which has prompted tens of thousands to rush to get a third shot of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine in the past week, is a final push to pull Israel out of its fourth wave of Covid-19 infections.
“I believe the fourth wave is coming to an end,” the health ministry’s director general Nachman Ash said in a radio speech, attributing the success to the booster campaign. “We are on our way, but I say this with caution.”
Simultaneously, the health ministry released data saying common side effects like fatigue or pain in the arm were all measurably lower after the third jab than after the first or the second.
Israel, which was the first nation to use the Pfizer vaccine, used boosters to avert an August lockdown as the vaccine’s efficacy waned and infections soared, especially among the elderly, who started filling up Israeli hospitals with severe illness.
Faced with the possibility that its hospitals could be overrun, Israel offered to give third shots, first to the immune-compromised, then to the elderly, and eventually, to the entire adult population before either Pfizer or other international health bodies like the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) had fully studied the subject.
Prime minister Naftali Bennett outlined the virtues of booster shots, first to US President Joe Biden in late August, then at the UN General Assembly two weeks ago. Faced with the choice of another lockdown or doubling down on vaccines, “we chose the latter – we pioneer the booster shot,” Bennett told world leaders. “Two months later, I can report that it works.”
So far, Israel is the outlier in offering boosters to the entirety of its population over 12, not just the clinically vulnerable. After fierce debate, and strong suggestions from the White House that the US would soon follow suit, the FDA limited Pfizer booster shots to people over 65, those at severe risk and to those in jobs where they are likely to be exposed to a lot of virus in their daily interactions.
In all cases, their second shots had to be at least six months ago, as in France, which was the first European country to start administering booster jabs to its over 65 years old last month. In the UK, booster shots are being offered to those above 50.
For Israeli health officials, the proof is in the pudding. Serious cases are now at a five week low, the number of tests returning positive is at a seven week-low and the prospect of a lockdown has evaporated. Schools are open, children above 12 are getting jabs of the vaccine and the unvaccinated make the majority of the severely ill and the deaths.
“It’s good that the US and UK are giving boosters to their elderly,” said a health official, asking for anonymity to speak freely. “But it’s a political decision not to follow Israel’s lead, not a medical one. That the vaccine is not good after six-eight months is no longer a secret.”
In Israel, the booster is now an imperative – those double-jabbed more than six months earlier must get a third jab to qualify for the green health passports that regulate entry into bars, restaurants, public venues like museums and to a large number of offices.
Some 3.4m have taken their third jabs, although nearly 2m and counting are eligible. “It’s terrible, forcing us to get more and more vaccine,” said Etai Maltz, 38, waiting outside a clinic with his wife to get a shot. “If they want to give it to the old or the unhealthy, that’s one thing — next they will want me to take a shot every month?”