Arrival of Lambda variant would force lockdown, Health Ministry warns

Officials tell Knesset panel the vaccine is less effective at countering mutation that has rampaged across South America and reached the US

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

A man receives a third dose of the coronavirus at a health center in Katzrin, on the Golan Heights, August 16, 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)
A man receives a third dose of the coronavirus at a health center in Katzrin, on the Golan Heights, August 16, 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

The Health Ministry on Monday warned that new coronavirus variants from abroad could force Israel into a lockdown that the government is working hard to avoid, with the Lambda variant posing a particularly pressing threat.

During a meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee to approve new measures for travel from abroad, a top ministry official warned of the variant that has rampaged across South America and crossed into the US.

“If it arrives in Israel we will go into the lockdown that we are so much trying to avoid,” Asher Salmon, director of the International Relations Department at the Health Ministry, told the committee.

Salmon said that the vaccine Israel has been using as part of its national inoculation program is less effective against the variant than against its predecessors.

After bringing down virus cases to little more than a dozen a day in June, Israel has seen a resurgence of the virus, blamed on the Delta variant brought into the country by arrivals who did not quarantine properly.

Ilana Gans, who specializes in public health at the ministry, said that the Delta variant accounts for 97% of the active cases in Israel but that other, more contagious variants would supplant it.

“If such a variant enters Israel, even if we manage to gain control of the current wave, it will put us into an additional wave because it is more violent and contagious,” she warned.

The Health Ministry identified Mexico, Georgia, Brazil and Turkey as the locations most likely to kick off a spread of the Lambda variant in Israel.

The US, South Africa, Austria and Kenya were also all named as countries where the variant is on the rise.

However, Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash played down the immediacy of the threat.

“I don’t want to cause unnecessary panic,” he told the Kan public broadcaster. “There were variants in the past and there will be in the future. I hope they don’t reach us, but there is danger they will arrive.”

New Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem on July 13, 2021. (Flash90)

Ash warned that if there is no drop in infection rates then a lockdown may be necessary. While not estimating how long such a lockdown may go on for, Ash said that if boosters shots being given to those age 50 and up prove to be effective, that would reduce the length of the lockdown.

“We want to see a reduction in the number of seriously ill patients, but our assessment is that the [third] vaccination works,” he said.

Ash also warned that a continued rise in morbidity would cause a delay in the opening of the school year, scheduled for September 1.

“If we see a slowdown, we will know that opening is possible,” he said but added that he preferred to make a final judgment call only in a few days’ time.

The idea of delaying the school year by a month has been floated as much of the High Holidays period falls next month, leaving just nine schooldays.

But Ash noted that the limited time students would spend in school could be beneficial, giving officials a chance to figure out how best to handle the matter.

Health Ministry figures released Monday showed 5,083 new virus cases were identified the day before. Of the 50,693 active cases, 531 are in serious condition. The death toll since the start of the pandemic was 6,673.

Though it fell slightly overnight, the number of seriously ill patients has been steadily rising, increasing nearly tenfold in the past month.

New travel restrictions came into effect at midnight, leaving only 10 countries from which vaccinated or recovered Israelis are able to return without having to quarantine fully and instead only isolate until receipt of a negative test result.

Those countries are: Austria, Australia, Hong Kong, Hungary, Taiwan, Moldova, New Zealand, China, Singapore and the Czech Republic. Most of those locations are not allowing tourists to enter.

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