Israel has identified 41 cases of the Indian COVID-19 variant, including five children as well as other cases not linked to returnees from abroad, indicating community spread, the Health Ministry said Thursday. Four of the 41 people have been fully vaccinated.
According to the ministry’s statement, 24 cases of the mutated strain were found among people who returned recently from abroad, including 21 foreign residents.
But 17 of those infected hadn’t been abroad, and some of them had no obvious links to someone who did, indicating that the variant is spreading undetected.
Moreover, five kids from five schools were diagnosed with the Indian variant. Since children cannot currently be vaccinated, this has raised fears of a new outbreak after infections have been steadily dropping for several months following the country’s rapid inoculation campaign.
The schools included Shvilim in the town of Pardes Hanna, known for its nonconformist residents, where many are refusing to vaccinate and where several virus cases have been identified recently, concerning health officials. With dozens of active patients, the town has now been classified as “orange” under the government’s traffic light system, making it one of only two localities in the country not rated as “yellow” or “green.”
The other schools where a student has the Indian strain are Keshet in Ashdod, Yosef in Holon, and Dekel Vilnai and Tzemah Hasadeh in the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim.
The Health Ministry is organizing widescale genetic sequencing tests in those schools.
Four of the 41 people diagnosed with the Indian strain have been vaccinated against the coronavirus, the Health Ministry said.
It isn’t yet known whether the new strain is more infectious or resistant to the antibodies that vaccinated and recovered people have.
A top health official said Wednesday that it was not clear that COVID-19 vaccines offer protection against the Indian variant, and cited this concern as a key reason why Israel must ban travel to countries with high coronavirus infection rates.
“We don’t know about the Indian variant, we don’t know enough,” Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, said of the strain of the disease ravaging India. Asked about claims and indications that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is effective against the Indian strain, she said: “I didn’t see any research on this.”
Earlier Wednesday, BioNTech co-founder Ugur Sahin had voiced confidence that the vaccine his company jointly developed with Pfizer — the primary vaccine used in Israel — works against the Indian variant.
“We are still testing the Indian variant, but the Indian variant has mutations that we have already tested for and which our vaccine works against, so I am confident,” said Sahin.
In its Thursday statement, the Health Ministry recommended avoiding unnecessary travel abroad.
It said several other mutated COVID-19 variants have recently been identified in Israel: eight cases of the South African strain, seven of a New York strain, two of a Californian variant and one each of a Saint Petersburg strain and a new British strain distinct from the now prevalent UK variant.
The Health Ministry has proposed new travel restrictions for Israelis, which would ban travel to seven high-risk countries including India, and force even vaccinated travelers from those countries to enter quarantine upon their return to Israel. Israel has issued a travel warning for seven countries: India, Ukraine, Ethiopia, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico and Turkey. However, the urgent restrictions have not been implemented.
The Health Ministry’s recommendations, which have not yet been adopted by the government because ministers in the outgoing coalition have been arguing over other issues this week, would also require non-citizens entering Israel from the specified highly infected countries to self-isolate in quarantine hotels.
Data published by the ministry showed a total of 100 COVID-19 cases were diagnosed yesterday with a 0.3% positivity rate, while active cases stand at 1,570, serious cases at 118 and critical patients at 68, continuing the general downward trend.
There were no new deaths overnight, with the death toll remaining at 6,361 out of a total of 838,372 cases since the pandemic began.
The figures showed 5,399,050 Israelis have received at least one vaccine dose, and 5,081,978 got both shots.