Variant spreading 'at a much quicker pace than Delta'

Bennett warns Israel entering ’emergency situation’ over new COVID-19 strain

As arrival from Malawi becomes first case of highly mutated B.1.1.529 variant detected in country, Health Ministry said to urge mandating additional COVID test for all arrivals

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett heads a weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, on November 14, 2021. (Ariel Schalit / POOL / AFP)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett heads a weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, on November 14, 2021. (Ariel Schalit / POOL / AFP)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Friday said that Israel is at the onset of an emergency situation, after the first case of a new, highly mutated coronavirus variant that first emerged in South Africa was detected in Israel.

“Our overriding principle at the moment is to take quick and strong action, now, especially regarding entry to – and exit from – Israel, until the situation becomes clearer,” Bennett said at a meeting with Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and experts.

“When it does, we will decide what we are doing,” he added.

“We are currently at the threshold of an emergency situation. I ask everyone to be prepared and to fully join in the work around the clock,” Bennett told the meetings’ participants, in comments released to the media by the Prime Minister’s Office.

“The new variant is more contagious, at a much quicker pace than the Delta strain,” Bennett said, adding that authorities are following data from South Africa to learn more about it, including whether it is resistant to existing vaccines.

Health Ministry officials asked Bennett during the meeting to impose new restrictions on all arrivals to Israel, requiring them to take an additional COVID test on the third day of their stay in the country, according to the Walla news site.

The first case of the strain, currently known by its scientific name B.1.1.529, was detected in Israel after a person arrived from Malawi, the Health Ministry announced earlier on Friday.

The ministry said two others were suspected of also being infected with the new strain and were awaiting final test results. All three were vaccinated, the ministry said, adding that their inoculation details were still being verified.

Hebrew-language media reports said a woman suspected of being infected with the variant took a bus from central Israel to the southern city of Eilat, where she works at a hotel. Police located her there and sent her to be tested further and questioned by medical officials.

Travelers seen arriving at Ben Gurion Airport, November 1, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

Bennett said that he had been updated during the night about the new strain being detected in Israel, and has ordered the government to purchase PCR test kits designed to better detect the variant.

The developments came despite efforts to prevent the strain from reaching Israel. On Thursday evening, Bennett ordered that several countries in southern Africa be labeled “red,” heavily restricting entry from them.

South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini were added to the list of countries from which foreigners are barred entry to Israel.

The list had been empty for some six weeks, as no country had fallen into the Health Ministry’s “red” criteria.

Returning Israelis, including those fully vaccinated, from any of the countries now considered “red” will be required to isolate at a state-run hotel for a week and will be released after receiving two negative PCR virus tests, Bennett said in a statement. Returnees who refuse to be tested will be required to isolate for two weeks at a state-run quarantine hotel, the statement added.

Bennett “also instructed that an immediate evaluation be held on stopping flights from these countries to Israel and vice versa, or the implementation of a different plan to prevent the variant from spreading to Israel.”

Scientists in South Africa revealed Thursday that they had detected a new COVID-19 variant with “a very high number of mutations,” blamed for an “exponential” surge in infections there.

The number of daily infections in Africa’s hardest-hit country has increased tenfold since the start of the month.

A young woman reacts as she receives a Pfizer jab against COVID-19, in Diepsloot Township near Johannesburg, October 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell, File)

In Israel, Health Ministry data on Friday showed that 524 people had been diagnosed the previous day, with the number representing 0.69 percent of the over 82,000 tests conducted.

There were 166 hospitalized individuals, of whom 120 were in serious condition. Data showed nearly 85 percent of serious cases are among unvaccinated individuals.

Officials from the Health Ministry warned lawmakers on Wednesday that there may be a need for new virus restrictions if cases cross the threshold of over 1,000 new infections diagnosed per day or infection rates are seen rising.

“If we pass the transmission rate of 1.2, we will have to use restrictions to reduce crowd sizes as a first stage, including in venues operating under the Green Pass, as these are events where more infections are seen,” Ilana Gans, chief of the public health services department at the Health Ministry, told the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

Health Ministry figures Friday showed that Israel’s transmission rate stood at 1.08, based on data from 10 days earlier.

Also known as the “R-number,” the figure represents the number of people each confirmed patient infects, on average. Any number over one signifies that case numbers are rising. The infection rate had been below one for two months before hitting that threshold several days ago.

AFP contributed to this report.

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