Health Ministry says 1st cases of New York coronavirus variant found in Israel

3 diagnosed with strain, all in same family; officials said concerned variant already spreading; preliminary US research suggests mutation may potentially weaken vaccine efficacy

A medical worker collects samples for coronavirus testing in Safed, on February 8, 2021 (David Cohen/Flash90)
A medical worker collects samples for coronavirus testing in Safed, on February 8, 2021 (David Cohen/Flash90)

The Health Ministry said on Tuesday that it has identified three cases of the so-called New York variant of the coronavirus, the first time the mutation has been found in Israel.

The ministry said all three cases were in the same family.

Kan News reported that ministry officials believe the three came into contact with someone who recently returned from New York and there were concerns others may already have been infected. According to Channel 13 News, the diagnosed individuals have not been cooperating with epidemiological investigators.

Officials are reportedly concerned the variant could already be spreading undetected in Israel.

Furthermore, the ministry was said to be weighing new restrictions on the fully vaccinated family members of people found to be carrying the virus. According to the outlet, vaccinated people could be asked to undergo testing or to quarantine, regulations they are currently exempt from.

In addition, the ministry said two cases of the B.1.525 variant have been found. The variant is thought to originate in Africa and has similar characteristics to the so-called South African mutation, which is more resistant to vaccines than other variants. The mutation has already been detected in the United Kingdom, United States, Nigeria and Jordan.

Two research groups — at Caltech and Columbia University in New York — released papers last week describing their findings about the New York variant. Neither paper has been published or reviewed by other scientists.

A man walks by an empty retail store, left, that is available for rent, Feb. 8, 2021, during the coronavirus pandemic in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

But both groups noted that the new variant has a mutation that could potentially weaken the effectiveness of vaccines.

They also found patients infected with the mutated virus, first detected in late November, were more likely to be older and have been hospitalized.

Viruses are constantly mutating as they spread and make copies of themselves. Some genetic tweaks can be concerning, especially if they help the virus spread more easily, make it more deadly or curb the effectiveness of vaccines. Scientists use genome sequencing and other research to figure out which are potential problems.

New variants have been showing up throughout the pandemic, but three have so far been considered the most worrisome and been designated “variants of concern.” They were first detected in Britain, South Africa and Brazil but have spread to other countries.

London Ambulance staff stretcher a patient from the ambulance into The Royal London Hospital in east London, on January 2, 2021. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP)

The highly contagious British mutation now accounts for almost all new coronavirus infections in Israel.

Israel’s land and air gateways have been largely closed since January 25, with Ben Gurion Airport shuttered for all but a few special flights by Israeli and some foreign airlines to bring back citizens stranded abroad, leaving thousands unable to return.

Entrance into the country has required special permission by the government that is granted on a case-by-case basis ahead of a flight, as officials are concerned that more contagious strains of the coronavirus could arrive in the country from abroad. However, ministers voted on Tuesday to curtail the panel’s work and place fewer limitations on returning Israelis.

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