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Health Ministry officials call to halt flights from India for several weeks

Warnings grow as Asian country battles major coronavirus surge that has seen it set new global records for daily infections

A Boeing 787 flight number AI139 of Indian national carrier Air India, from New Delhi, performs maneuvers on the tarmac at Ben Gurion International Airport on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, on March 22, 2018 after using Saudi airspace for the first time. (AFP PHOTO/JACK GUEZ)
Illustrative: A Boeing 787 flight number AI139 of Indian national carrier Air India, from New Delhi, performs maneuvers on the tarmac at Ben Gurion International Airport on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, on March 22, 2018 after using Saudi airspace for the first time. (AFP PHOTO/JACK GUEZ)

Health Ministry officials are reportedly calling for all direct flights from India to be temporarily halted, as the Asian country battles a major coronavirus surge that has seen it set new global records for daily infections.

“We need to stop the direct flights from India to Israel for at least a few weeks until the situation stabilizes,” officials were quoted by Channel 13 Monday as saying.

A confirmed 349,691 infections over the past day brought India’s total to more than 16.9 million cases, behind only the United States. The country’s health ministry reported another 2,767 deaths in the past 24 hours, pushing India’s fatalities to 192,311.

Israeli health officials told Channel 13 that despite the raging Indian outbreak, Israel has not yet halted flights from the country because of students and foreign workers returning from there.

“The skies won’t fall if the direct flights stop for a few weeks. The space for error is likely to be too big,” the officials reportedly said.

Travelers at the departures hall in Ben Gurion Airport on April 18, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Israeli health officials have expressed concerns about the “Indian variant” of COVID-19, fearing that vaccines may be less effective against it.

The Health Ministry has so far confirmed seven cases of the variant among unvaccinated travelers who returned to Israel from abroad, without revealing from where.

The majority of cases were identified through tests conducted at Ben Gurion Airport, while the remainder were identified while the arrivals were quarantining.

India has confirmed the new and potentially troublesome variant of the coronavirus, which has two mutations in the spiky protein that the virus uses to fasten itself to cells. Dr. Rakesh Mishra, director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, said last month that these genetic tweaks could be of concern since they might help the virus spread more easily and escape the immune system.

India is currently battling a record surge in infections, with experts suspecting the most likely cause is the presence of more infectious variants, including the one detected in the country.

Last week Israel’s Health Ministry issued an advisory urging Israelis to avoid travel to India and six other countries experiencing significant COVID-19 outbreaks, citing concerns of possible coronavirus strains that may be more resistant to vaccines.

A patient breathes with the help of oxygen provided by a Gurdwara, Sikh place of worship, inside a car in New Delhi, India, April 24, 2021. (Altaf Qadri/AP)

The ministry said that India, Ukraine, Ethiopia, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico and Turkey were selected in light of “the present situation and the morbidity trends” there. It cited criteria such as the number of Israelis coming from those nations, the percentage of vaccinated and recovered people relative to confirmed cases, and evidence of the existence of coronavirus variants.

The ministry further said all Israelis, including the vaccinated and recovered, should generally avoid any “unnecessary” international travel altogether.

The virus has been mutating throughout the pandemic. Most mutations are trivial, but scientists have been investigating which ones might make the virus spread more easily or make people sicker.

The three variants first detected in South Africa, the UK and Brazil have so far been considered the most worrisome. The most widespread of these was the more contagious variant that was detected in the United Kingdom last year. The extensive spread of the UK strain in Israel has been blamed for the severity of the Jewish state’s third coronavirus wave earlier this year.

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