Middle East

Israeli PM announces fourth Covid jab for over-60s to tackle Omicron

Israel is set to become the first country in the world to offer a fourth dose of Covid-19 vaccines in an effort to protect against the Omicron variant.

People over the age of 60 and healthcare workers will be eligible for a second booster shot, the prime minister, Naftali Bennett, said on Tuesday night, following a recommendation made by Israel’s panel of pandemic experts.

The rollout, aimed at people who had a third shot at least four months ago, is pending approval by the health ministry but is expected to go ahead in the next few days.

“The citizens of Israel were the first in the world to receive the third dose of the Covid-19 vaccine and we are continuing to pioneer with the fourth dose as well,” Bennett said in remarks relayed by his office, calling on those who meet the criteria to “go and get vaccinated”.

A year ago, Israel embarked on a world-leading vaccination campaign thanks to a special deal with drugmakers Pfizer/BioNTech, in which the country received early supplies in exchange for sharing health data on the vaccines’ impact.

Since then, however, progress has slowed: only about 63% of the 9.3 million-strong population has received two doses, partly owing to the fact that the population skews young, and due to high levels of vaccine hesitancy within the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities.

Israel was also fiercely criticised for not doing more to facilitate a faster rollout for the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which is under Israeli blockade. Vaccines became more widely available in the summer, but to date only about 34% of Palestinians have had two doses, despite the use of carrot-and-stick incentives by both the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and Hamas in Gaza.

The decision to begin giving a second booster shot comes as Israel braces for a fifth wave of infection caused by the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

According to the health ministry, there are at least 340 known cases of Omicron in Israel, accounting for 10-15% of all coronavirus infections, and authorities anticipate Omicron will overtake Delta to become the dominant strain of the virus in Israel within two weeks.

The country’s first suspected death from Omicron was announced by a Beersheba hospital on Tuesday, but was later amended after a final laboratory investigation determined the patient, a man in his 60s with serious pre-existing conditions, had been infected with the Delta variant.

Bennett’s coalition government moved quickly against Omicron, barring foreigners from entering Israel on 25 November and expanding a list of high-risk countries to which its citizens should not travel to include the US this week. Amid fierce debate, his cabinet has so far resisted major new internal restrictions such as limiting public gatherings or school closures.


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