Israel will roll out a booster dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to older people, citing a drop in protection against severe disease driven by the Delta variant

An Israeli receives a coronavirus vaccine from medical staff at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.
Sebastian Scheiner/AP

Israel will begin offering booster shots of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine this weekend.
The vaccine’s protection against severe illness waned over time from 97% to 81%, officials said.
With the rise of the Delta variant, many countries are considering booster doses.
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Israel will start offering booster doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine to its older citizens on Sunday, as health officials described new data showing a decline in the vaccine’s protection against severe disease over time.
A key unknown with the COVID-19 vaccine is how long protection will last. The emergence and spread of the Delta variant has intensified that uncertainty, with the variant showing the ability to partially evade the vaccine’s protection.
In response to the latest data, Israel is offering a third dose of the vaccine to its citizens 60 years and older who are at least five months removed from their second shot. Other countries are also considering if and when to roll out booster shots. Israel had already begun offering booster shots to some people with compromised immune systems, such as cancer patients.
There has been a trickle of studies in recent weeks suggesting protection from Pfizer’s vaccine starts to wane after several months. Israel’s decision was motivated by signals of decreased efficacy, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Read more: Pfizer doubles down on the case for COVID-19 vaccine booster shots
In particular, one Israeli scientist said the country has data showing the vaccine’s protection against severe illness among this 60-plus age group dropped from 97% in April to 81% in July. Those results have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed medical journal or even posted on a preprint server.
Eric Topol, director and founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, said on Twitter that these results, if they hold up, would be "the first sign of a significant dropdown of protection against hospitalizations and death for these vaccines."
"I hope all of the data will be shared ASAP as the implications are big," he wrote.
Israel’s findings appear in contrast to reports from the UK in June, with one large observational study finding Pfizer’s vaccine reduced the risk of hospitalization from the Delta variant by 96%. One difference between the two findings is that Israel’s results are specific to the elderly population.
Pfizer presented more results on Wednesday supporting the company’s argument that boosters will be needed six to 12 months after the initial vaccination. Laboratory testing done by Pfizer showed neutralizing antibodies, a key part of the immune response, significantly declined eight months after the second dose among all age groups.
The New York drugmaking giant also posted new, detailed results from its clinical trial that enrolled more than 40,000 volunteers. Longer-term follow-up showed the vaccine’s ability to prevent symptomatic COVID-19 cases, regardless of severity, dipped to 84% starting four months after the second dose, compared with 96% efficacy in the first two months.
The vaccine’s overall efficacy against severe disease in that study was 97%, with 30 cases occurring among people who got placebo shots and 1 case in a person who got the vaccine.
Pfizer’s findings have also yet to be published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, and the company said it would submit an application to US regulators in August to begin offering booster shots.
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