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PM orders new COVID subvariant be closely watched, data shared with Europe

Bennett huddles with top health officials, indicates that the framework to allow the relaunch of vaccinated tourism in Israel could be altered due to AY4.2 strain

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

A healthcare worker takes a swab sample from a woman for COVID-19, after returning from overseas at the Ben Gurion International Airport on September 20, 2021. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
A healthcare worker takes a swab sample from a woman for COVID-19, after returning from overseas at the Ben Gurion International Airport on September 20, 2021. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett ordered officials to keep a close eye on new coronavirus subvariant AY4.2 Wednesday evening, during an emergency meeting with health officials a day after the strain was first found in the country.

Following the meeting, Bennett said officials will be “closely monitoring” developments surrounding the new strain in order to maintain Israel’s current low levels of morbidity.

“Quick action must be taken in order to maintain the success that has been achieved up until now in the fight against the virus,” a statement from his office read.

He instructed officials to boost epidemiological investigations and genetic testing of those who were diagnosed with the AY4.2 strain, as well as to maintain close cooperation and information sharing with countries where the subvariant has been identified, especially in Europe.

The prime minister also indicated that the proposed framework to allow the relaunch of vaccinated tourism in Israel next month will likely be altered due to the presence of the new strain, without detailing the changes.

He made the comments after meeting with Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, Health Ministry director general Nachman Ash, coronavirus czar Salman Zarka, director of the ministry’s public health services Sharon Alroy-Preis, and other health officials, as they sought to formulate an approach to the emergence of the new subvariant, first detected in Britain, said the Prime Minister’s Office.

The first known case in Israel of AY4.2 was confirmed on Tuesday in a sample taken from a young boy who returned to Israel from Moldova, health officials said. The 11-year-old boy in question tested positive after arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport this week and was sent into isolation, according to Hebrew media reports. The Prime Minister’s Office said Wednesday night that “just a few cases” of the subvariant have been detected in Israel over the past few weeks, following increased genetic testing among positive cases.

Health officials are considering mandating quarantine for anyone who comes in contact with someone who tests positive for the AY4.2 subvariant, even if they are fully vaccinated and otherwise exempt from quarantine, Channel 12 said.

Empty beds in the intensive care unit at the coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek Medical Center, in Jerusalem on October 14, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Anyone who enters Israel — regardless of their citizenship or vaccination status — must undergo a COVID PCR test before departing from a foreign country and after landing at Ben-Gurion Airport. On Tuesday, 19 people who entered the country tested positive, as did 22 on Monday and 27 on Sunday, representing less than 0.1% of all those who entered Israel each day.

The AY4.2 subvariant is being closely monitored by officials in the UK, and others have called for urgent research into the subvariant, though health officials say there is no evidence yet that it is driving the uptick in coronavirus cases in some places. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said the government was keeping a “close eye” on the AY.4.2 variant, but said there was no evidence it spreads more easily.

Israel appears to be at the tail end of its fourth coronavirus wave, as new infections and serious cases have ticked down over the past few weeks. As of Wednesday evening, there were 343 serious COVID cases in Israel, down from close to 750 a month ago. Just 1.28% of those tested on Tuesday came back positive, a rate that stands at its lowest point since mid-July.

On average over the past month, 14 Israelis with COVID have died each day — a figure that has been trending downward in recent weeks — and 8,029 Israelis have died since the beginning of the outbreak.

Israel has been weighing reopening its borders to vaccinated tourists next month, something it has delayed numerous times throughout the year, as COVID infections waxed and waned. Since March 2020, Israel has been effectively shut to general tourism, allowing in only non-citizens granted special permission to enter.

Last month, it restarted a pilot program to allow in those vaccinated tourists who are part of organized tour groups, including Birthright Israel.

The prime minister’s office said Wednesday night that the proposed tourism framework slated to be presented to Bennett on Thursday will be “updated in accordance with the existing information of the new variant.”

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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