New COVID strain detected in Israel; Pfizer vaccine purchase bid delayed

FILE PHOTO: A woman receives a vaccination against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a temporary Clalit healthcare maintenance organisation (HMO) centre, at a basketball court in Petah Tikva

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A new coronavirus strain has been identified in Israel, the Health Ministry said on Tuesday, and the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, used primarily in a swift nationwide inoculation drive, appeared to be effective against it.

Separately, a bid by the Israeli government to secure 36 million more Pfizer/BioNTech doses for use as booster shots or for children once they are eligible hit a snag this week over political infighting.

The cabinet had been set for Monday to approve the purchase, at around 3.5 billion shekels ($1.05 billion), but it was called off in a squabble between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defence minister, Benny Gantz, who heads a rival party, over judicial appointments.

The health ministry, which has spent 2.6 billion shekels on vaccines, without disclosing the exact number of Pfizer and Moderna doses purchased, said it had sufficient supplies "for the present round of vaccinations".

But it said it was important to acquire more doses to fend off variants and inoculate children when that becomes possible.

The ministry said separately it discovered no evidence the new variant caused widespread infection or severe morbidity, and said it appeared to be scarce and may be disappearing entirely.

More than half of Israel's population of nine million have received both doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Infection rates have been dropping steadily, and Israel's economy has largely reopened.

Health officials have said they expect all those eligible for the vaccine to be inoculated by the end of May. About a third of Israelis are under the age of 16, rendering them ineligible until the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is deemed safe for children.

Israel is in the grips of another political stalemate after an election last week, its fourth in two years, ended with no clear winner. Talks on building a governing coalition could go on for weeks.

A spokeswoman for Pfizer declined to comment on the potential vaccine sale.

Netanyahu said this month that Israel is looking to buy 36 million more doses of COVID-19 vaccines.

($1 = 3.3317 shekels)

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell and Steven Scheer; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Bernadette Baum)