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Report: Israel to participate in Pfizer trials for dedicated Omicron vaccine

Trial to take place at Sheba Hospital, but begins as Omicron wave appears to be receding

A photo illustration of a syringe and a bottle reading "COVID-19 Vaccine" next to the Pfizer company logo in Jerusalem on December 10, 2020. (Photo: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

According to a local news report, Israel is set to begin trials for Pfizer’s Omicron-specific mRNA vaccine at the end of this month.

Ynet reported that the trial will be run by Sheba Medical Center and will include people over 60 who have not gotten a fourth COVID jab. Some 691,352 Israelis have already taken the fourth shot.

Talks have been ongoing between Pfizer and Israeli health officials to take part in trials for the new, modified vaccine, the news site reported. Most participants will be hospital personnel and their families, the story said, and the trial must be approved by the Helsinki Committee, which authorizes medical research and trials on humans.

Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla – who called Israel his company’s lab for exclusively using the Pfizer shot and rapidly inoculating the population – has said that the pharmaceutical giant could be ready to file for approval of this new shot by March.

At one time Israel led the world in percentage of eligible population vaccinated and still leads the way in offering boosters.

But Israel's Health Ministry was worried that this trial could hamper ongoing vaccination efforts.

“The ministry has expressed its concern that the trial will further reduce the number of people receiving the existing vaccine, in anticipation of the modified version and in conjunction with the recent scrapping of the Green Pass mandate,” Ynet reported.

“As part of the experiment, three modified vaccines against Omicron will be administered to recipients who had not received any Pfizer vaccines, or had been given the first two doses only.”

“The trial will also include volunteers who received three doses and they will be divided into two groups: one will be given the modified jab and the other, will be given the existing vaccine.”

Just last month, an Israeli study by the same hospital concluded that a fourth COVID shot of Pfizer’s original vaccine was less effective against the Omicron variant.

“The vaccine, which was very effective against the previous strains, is less effective against the Omicron strain,” Prof. Gili Regev-Yochay, one of the lead researchers for the Sheba Hospital study, said at the time.

Ugur Sahin, CEO of the German biotech company BioNTech, also said the original vaccine appeared to wane more rapidly against Omicron.

“This study is part of our science-based approach to develop a variant-based vaccine that achieves a similar level of protection against Omicron as it did with earlier variants but longer duration of protection,” he said.

Israel has been exclusively using the Pfizer injection which was authorized for emergency use in December 2020. Since then:

  • 6,695,159 Israelis (of 9.4 million) have received one shot

  • 6,111,859 have had two and

  • 4,454,245 have taken three shots.

A year ago, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he planned to order another 36 million doses to continue vaccinating his citizens on a regular basis. 

“This is my long-term plan for the vaccine,” he said at the time. “You need to understand, the two vaccines that you’ve received will not last forever. They are for a limited time and we will need to renew our antibodies all the time.” 

Israel was first to implement the third shot and also condition its vaccine pass, the Green Passport, upon receiving the booster. During the Omicron wave, Israel also started offering the fourth shot, becoming the first and one of the very few nations to do so.

On the other hand, Israel is one of a few countries that counts those recovered eligible to receive a Green Passport. This could account for the discrepancy between uptake of the first and third shots. 

Israel set record highs for infections during this recent wave. In the month of January alone, the nation registered more cases than in all of 2021.

But as the fifth wave of COVID recedes and many mandates are being dropped and the borders reopened – and after more than 1 million Israelis were already infected presumably by this variant – it begs the question why the Omicron vaccine is needed at all. 

Nicole Jansezian was the news editor and senior correspondent for ALL ISRAEL NEWS.

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