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49 suspected cases of new virus variant said found in samples at one Israeli lab

Preliminary test results at Assaf Harofeh Medical Center, including from individuals who haven’t traveled, raise fears of community spread of more transmissible coronavirus strain

Health care workers take test samples in Modi'in, on December 24, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Health care workers take test samples in Modi'in, on December 24, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Researchers in Israel have located dozens of suspected cases of a new coronavirus variant that first surfaced in the UK, according to a Friday report.

In the Assaf Harofeh Medical Center outside Tel Aviv, testers found 49 suspected cases of the new virus strain, Channel 13 reported. The new virus strain is believed to be more transmissible, but not more deadly.

Nineteen suspected cases were found in another lab in southern Israel. Some of the patients with the suspected variant had not left the country recently, heightening fears the new virus strain was spreading inside Israel, the report said.

Laboratories at Assaf Harofeh suspected the 49 test samples contained the virus variant after receiving results from a specific kind of testing kit. The Health Ministry had asked all laboratory managers in Israel to look for changes in results from these testing kits as officials searched for the variant, Channel 13 said.

The director of the hospital’s laboratory department notified the Health Ministry about the results.

Health care workers take coronavirus test samples of Israelis in Modi’in, December 24, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Israel currently has six known cases of new virus strain, Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy said on Friday.

Levy said that hundreds of test samples were currently undergoing genetic mapping for the mutated strain, and indicated that it is likely more cases with the new variant will be confirmed. He said the variant is much more transmissible and drives up infection rates, but does not make the COVID-19 disease more deadly.

Channel 13 said Thursday the Health Ministry would convert its main laboratory into a center for genetic mapping of the mutated coronavirus strains. The network said the ministry was purchasing a special machine from abroad for NIS 10 million ($3.1 million) for the new laboratory.

The developments came as infections continued to surge in Israel and the country prepared for its third national lockdown that will take effect on Sunday evening.

The Health Ministry reported 4,046 new cases on Thursday — the highest daily number since the last lockdown, which took effect in September.

The upcoming lockdown aimed at curbing the resurgence of COVID-19 is set to last at least two weeks long and may extend to four.

An Israeli receives a COVID-19 vaccine in Jerusalem, December 23, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

During the closure, rules will bar Israelis from entering another person’s home; restrict movement to 1 kilometer from home, with exceptions, such as for vaccinations; shut down commerce, leisure and entertainment; limit public transportation to 50% capacity; and limit workplaces that do not deal with customers face-to-face to 50% capacity.

Kindergartens and school grades 1-4 and 11-12 will study as usual during the lockdown, while grades 5-10 will study remotely.

Israel’s two previous lockdowns, in April and September, succeeded in bringing down infection numbers, but morbidity ballooned again as the closures were rolled back.

The Health Ministry said Friday that over 74,000 people had been vaccinated against the virus on Thursday, taking the total number of people to receive the first dose of the vaccine to 210,000.

Shots were administered to medical staff from Sunday and Israelis in at-risk populations from Monday. Hospitals were set to join the effort next week, ramping up the campaign, with the prime minister and health officials saying Israel aspired to become the first country in the world to achieve herd immunity through vaccination against COVID-19.

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