Health Official ‘Concerned’ Over Spread of Omicron Variant in Israel

YERUSHALAYIM -
A worker performs a COVID-19 rapid antigen test at a Magen David Adom testing center in Lod. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The Knesset’s Health Committee convened on Wednesday to discuss the new coronavirus-related restrictions that took effect this week, including a ban on the entry of tourist groups into Israel for the next two weeks, following the discovery of the new Omicron variant, as a senior health official outlined the obstacles the new variant may create.

Some 35 suspected cases of Omicron are currently under investigation in Israel.

Ilana Gens, head of the Public Health Services Headquarters at the Health Ministry, told the Committee that “the identification of the Omicron variant lights up red lights because it has a lot of mutations and this is what raises suspicion at the biological level for potential harm to vaccine efficacy.”

Similar mutations have been documented in the alpha, beta, and other variants, but they number one to three mutations, and Omicron is carrying 15 mutations in the same protein, and “this is critical for the antibodies that our body produces,” she noted.

In South Africa, the Omicron variant was detected within two weeks in 75% of all samples, it has pushed the Delta variant aside and it is much more contagious than it, the number of verified cases there has increased seven times in two weeks, and mortality has increased fourfold. Sixty-four countries have already reported the existence of the variant in their territory.

“This is a very disturbing picture that indicates a very high infection potential,” Gens said.

“We are not currently seeing severe illness among the vaccinated but we still do not know exactly what the infection potential is of vaccinated and recovering people with this variant. Therefore, until it becomes clear, we wanted to impose a shortened quarantine obligation on vaccinated and recovering people returning from abroad, from all over the world,” she said.

Israelis returning from abroad are required to self-quarantine for 72 hours upon returning to the country.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said on Tuesday that “in the coming days we will have more accurate information on the effectiveness of the vaccine against the new variant, but there are already some initial indications that those who are vaccinated, including with a booster, will be highly protected against this variant as well.”

Meanwhile, the Health Ministry documented 568 new COVID cases on Tuesday.