Israel has become the first country in the world to administer a fourth Covid-19 vaccine, to the over-60s and medical staff, amid a surge in infections from the Omicron variant.
Large queues formed at vaccination centres around the country on Monday, the first day the second booster shot was available to older people who had gone at least four months since receiving their third dose.
The decision to expand the booster rollout followed warnings by prime minister Naftali Bennett that the country could soon see up to 50,000 infections a day.
Israel last week began giving a fourth vaccine dose to the immunocompromised and the elderly in care homes.
At the same time the country has decided to ease its strict travel lockdown and from Sunday foreigners who are fully vaccinated or have recovered from Covid from countries classified as “orange”, including Ireland, will again be allowed to visit Israel.
Israel’s decision to roll out the fourth vaccine followed a warning from Prof Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute of Science that between two and four million Israelis, more than 40 per cent of the population, could end up being infected with the Omicron variant within the next three weeks.
“We’ve been first in the world with the booster shots and that policy has protected Israel’s citizens well,” Mr Bennett said, adding that Israel’s recent death rate has been among the lowest in the world.
Israel, which has a population of just under 10 million, has recorded 8,244 deaths from the disease.
Israel is currently seeing more than 5,000 new cases a day. This will likely reach 20,000 new daily cases by the end of the week and could hit 50,000 daily cases at the height of the wave, Mr Bennett warned, adding that the only effective antidote to the spike was the vaccine. “Here’s what we need you to do: get vaccinated; get boosted; get the children vaccinated,” he said.
Officials made it clear that despite the surge in infections there would be no more lockdowns or new restrictions.
Israel’s coronavirus co-ordinator Salman Zarka rejected claims that the government’s new policy amounted to seeking herd immunity. “We have no policy of mass infection,” he said. “Claims that we’re trying to reach herd immunity have no basis.”
Tel Aviv’s Sheba hospital has released the first results of a study on the safety of a fourth vaccine. Approximately 150 test subjects received the fourth dose and 80 per cent reported only very light local reactions, similar to after the third vaccine dose. Half of the test subjects had fleeting side effects that disappeared usually after one day.