Some scientists warn that too many shots might actually harm the body’s ability to fight the Covid-19 virus. But Israeli experts say there isn’t time to wait.

By Isabel Kershner

Israel is considering whether to approve a fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose for vulnerable people to contain the fast-spreading Omicron variant, despite debate among scientists and a lack of evidence either for or against another booster.

The panel of experts advising the Israeli government on the pandemic recognized that uncertainty, but on Tuesday it recommended giving a fourth dose, concluding that the potential benefits outweighed the risks. It pointed to signs of waning immunity a few months after the third shot, and said that any delay in additional doses might prove too late to protect those most at risk.

But some scientists warned that the plan could backfire, because too many shots might cause a sort of immune system fatigue, compromising the body’s ability to fight the coronavirus. A few members of the government’s advisory panel raised that concern with respect to the elderly, according to a written summary of the discussion obtained by The New York Times.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, has made clear he supports a fourth shot, and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz has suggested that a new round of boosters could get underway by Sunday. But by Thursday evening, the health ministry had not acted on the advice, and a senior ministry official said it was waiting for more data from other countries.

Israel, a small country with an efficient public health system, was a leader in rolling out the first round of Covid vaccinations and later in giving booster shots, so its results have been closely watched by the rest of the world. Its aggressive pace has put Israel in position to assess early how effective the shots are and how quickly the protection wears off.

“The price will be higher if we don’t vaccinate,” Dr. Boaz Lev, the head of the advisory panel, said at a news conference late Wednesday. Describing the spread of Omicron as “a kind of tsunami or tornado,” he added, “We don’t have a lot of time to make decisions.”

With Omicron sweeping the world at alarming speed, governments are scrambling to figure out how to contain it in the face of significant public pressure against reimposing harsh restrictions on daily life, curbing holiday celebrations and deepening the economic pain wrought by two years of pandemic.

A new British report shows that booster doses are less effective against Omicron than previous variants, and their effectiveness wears off faster — within 10 weeks. Vaccine makers are trying to adjust their shots to target Omicron.

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