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A vaccine-defiant Israeli mutation wouldn’t be surprising, ex-virus czar warns

Ronni Gamzu says high case count, together with high vaccination rates, may cause the virus to evolve to ‘escape mutation’; but he voices optimism on collective protection

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A medical worker at a drive-through site to collect samples for coronavirus testing in the northern Israeli city of Safed on February 8, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)
A medical worker at a drive-through site to collect samples for coronavirus testing in the northern Israeli city of Safed on February 8, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Israel could very well see the rise of a vaccine-defiant mutation, the country’s former coronavirus czar has said, suggesting such a development would “not be surprising.”

Speaking as the British variant of the virus grows ever more dominant in Israel and now accounts for the vast majority of cases, Prof. Ronni Gamzu said that Israel could see an “escape mutation.”

He was asked in a press briefing on Thursday about the possibility of an Israeli variant emerging, and responded: “It will not be surprising to see this because Israel has, on one hand, a relatively high level of coronavirus incidence, of new cases, and a transmission rate that is still high, while on the other hand we have a high vaccination rate.

“Joining these two factors may cause pressure in evolution theory for an escape mutation,” he said, using a phrase that describes a virus variant that defies the human immune response generated by a vaccine.

“It could be. We are looking into it,” he said.

Family members wearing safety gear visit a family member at the coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on February 3, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gamzu added: “We are doing more and more sequencing. In my hospital every case of coronavirus is being sequenced to look for the British variant, the South African variant, the Brazilian variant, and other kids of mutation — not only in the spike protein [which has been the source of most mutations] but in the entire virus.”

While Gamzu, who coordinated Israel’s COVID response from June to November and is now back at his job as director of Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Medical Center, delivered a stark message on mutations, he was upbeat on the issue of collective immunity.

Many doctors are skeptical that Israel can reach full herd immunity anytime soon, given the high transmissibility of new variants and the unavailability of vaccines to most under-16s. But Gamzu said he believes that the elderly can still benefit from a herd immunity of sorts.

Former coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Even though you do not reach herd immunity in your total population, you reach a dynamic of herd immunity once you cover the high-risk age group [with vaccines],” he said.

His logic was that the majority of social contact takes place between people of similar ages, and therefore as the vast majority of Israel’s elderly are now vaccinated, this will give the most vulnerable in society a degree of collective protection.

Gamzu said in his briefing that Israel should restart international travel within two weeks, and voiced support for the notion of special passports for the vaccinated.

“I believe that Israel should open the skies, open travel, and do it in a safe way,” he said.

Ben Gurion Airport has been largely shuttered since January 25, as part of a sweeping closure of Israel’s air and land borders, intended to prevent the import of new coronavirus strains. But Gamzu said a combination of testing and vaccines can allow safe travel.

The departure hall at the almost empty Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on January 25, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

While the government is currently noncommittal on the idea of a “green passport,” with its initial enthusiasm dampened by the variants, Gamzu said such a document can pave the way for travel that is almost “routine.”

Asked about plans to reopen large swaths of the economy on Sunday, Gamzu said he believes Israel “can take the risk” in view of high vaccination rates. With the transmission rate, meaning the average number of people infected by each confirmed coronavirus carrier, at 0.8, Gamzu said this was low enough to manage the pandemic.

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