JERUSALEM • Israel has approved a fourth vaccine shot for vulnerable people, becoming one of the first countries to do so, amid a surge in Covid-19 cases driven by the Omicron variant.
The approval came as another anti-Covid-19 weapon arrived in the country: The first shipment of Pfizer's anti-Covid-19 pills.
"Today, I approved giving the fourth vaccine for immunocompromised people," Health Ministry director-general Nachman Ash told reporters on Thursday.
"I did this in the light of studies that show the benefit of the vaccine, including the fourth vaccine, to this population, and in the light of the fear they are more vulnerable in this outbreak of Omicron."
The country's health authorities on Thursday reported more than 4,000 new cases, a high not seen since September.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said Israel was in "a fifth wave", with most cases probably related to the Omicron variant.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Israel, which was among the first countries in the world to offer a third shot to the general public, would be a trailblazer for the fourth jab.
"Israel will lead the way in administering a fourth vaccine to the Israeli people," he said.
About 4.2 million people out of a population of 9.4 million Israelis have received three vaccine shots.
Also on Thursday, an Israeli El Al flight from Belgium landed in Tel Aviv carrying a shipment of Pfizer's anti-Covid-19 pill, Paxlovid.
Mr Bennett hailed this as an "important addition to the arsenal in the war against the pandemic".
Professor Ran Balicer, chairman of Israel's national expert panel on Covid-19, said the Pfizer drugs could "dramatically reduce risk of severe illness, potentially thus also reducing the overall hospital burden". He added that the medications were critical, "in addition to vaccines and masks".
The US Food and Drug Administration last week authorised Pfizer's Paxlovid pill for high-risk people aged 12 and up.
In trials, the treatment has been shown to reduce Covid-19 hospitalisations and deaths by 88 per cent among at-risk people. The oral treatments block the virus' ability to replicate, and should withstand variants, experts say.
Until now, the main treatments for Covid-19 have been synthetic antibodies or Gilead's antiviral remdesivir, which are administered by infusion.
The United States has paid US$5.3 billion (S$7.2 billion) for 10 million courses of Pfizer's new treatment, as well as US$2.2 billion for treatment from rival Merck, whose pill appears to be less effective.
The European Union's drug regulator has also allowed member states to use Pfizer's Covid-19 medications ahead of formal approval as an emergency measure.
Last week, Chile announced that it would offer a fourth shot to at-risk people beginning in February. The health authorities in the United Kingdom and Germany have also said that they are considering fourth doses.