JERUSALEM: Israel on Tuesday (Aug 24) lowered the age threshold to receive a third coronavirus booster dose to anyone aged 30 and above, as it continues to battle surging infections.
Israel is among a handful of nations that have decided to administer a third vaccine dose, a policy criticised by the World Health Organization, which has called for more doses to be sent to poorer states.
But Israel's health ministry announced the lowered age threshold after 9,831 new cases were registered on Monday, the highest daily tally since January.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has argued that given Israel's relatively small population its booster shot programme would not affect global stocks but would provide quick data on the effectiveness of a third dose, aiding the global pandemic fight.
On Tuesday, he described Israel as the "global pioneers regarding the third dose of the vaccine".
More than 5.4 million Israelis have received two shots of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, 58 per cent of the population, and more than 1.5 million people have had three shots.
Israel was one of the first countries to launch a large-scale vaccination drive which began in December and succeeded in lowering infections, but cases have spiked largely because of the highly transmissible Delta variant.
Bennett has said he is committed to avoiding another economically crippling lockdown, and believes the latest surge can be managed by expanding vaccinations and promoting mask-wearing.
SIGNS OF BOOSTER TAMING DELTA
Delta hit Israel in June, just as the country began to reap the benefits of one of the world's fastest vaccine roll-outs.
With an open economy and most curbs scrapped, Israel went from single-digit daily infections and zero deaths to around 7,500 daily cases last week, 600 people hospitalised in serious condition and more than 150 people dying in that week alone.
On Jul 30, it began administering a third dose of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine to people over 60, the first country to do so.
In the past 10 days, the pandemic is abating among this age group, more than a million of whom have received a third vaccine dose, according to Israeli health ministry data and scientists interviewed by Reuters.
The rate of disease spread among vaccinated people age 60 and over - known as the reproduction rate - began falling steadily around Aug 13 and has dipped below 1, indicating that each infected person is transmitting the virus to fewer than one other person. A reproduction rate of less than 1 means an outbreak is subsiding.
Scientists said booster shots are having an impact on infections, but other factors are likely contributing to the decline as well.
"The numbers are still very high but what has changed is that the very high increase in the rate of infections and severe cases has diminished, as has the pace at which the pandemic is spreading," said Eran Segal, data scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science and an adviser to the government.
"This is likely due to the third booster shots, an uptake in people taking the first dose and the high number of people infected per week, possibly up to 100,000, who now have natural immunity," Segal said.
Evidence has emerged showing that while the vaccine is still highly effective in preventing serious illness, its protection diminishes with time. But there is no consensus among scientists and agencies that a third dose is necessary, and the World Health Organization has said more of the world should be vaccinated with a first dose before people receive a third dose.
The United States has announced plans to offer booster doses to all Americans, eight months after their second vaccine dose, citing data showing diminishing protection. Canada, France and Germany have also planned booster campaigns.
About a million of Israel's 9.3 million population have so far chosen not to vaccinate at all, and children under 12 are still not eligible for the shots.
According to Doron Gazit, a member of the Hebrew University's COVID-19 expert team which advises government, the rise in cases of severely ill vaccinated people in the 60 and older group has been steadily slowing to a halt in the last 10 days.
"We attribute this to the booster shots and to more cautious behaviour recently," Gazit said.
More than half of those over 60 have received a third jab, according to the Health ministry.
"We are optimistic but very cautious," Israeli Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz told public broadcaster Kan on Sunday. "It gives us more time, slows the spread and we're moving away from lockdown."
But even if the boosters are slowing the pandemic's pace, it is unlikely to fend Delta off entirely.
Dvir Aran, biomedical data scientist at Technion - Israel's Institute of Technology, said that while cases are retreating, other measures are needed alongside boosters to stop the pandemic. "It will take a long time until enough people get a third dose and until then thousands more people will getting seriously ill."
Since Delta's surge, Israel has reimposed indoor mask-wearing, limitations on gatherings and ramped up rapid testing.
Its "living with COVID" policy will be tested come September, when schools reopen after the summer break and when the Jewish holiday season starts, with families traditionally gathering to celebrate.