Health Ministry says South African virus strain found in Israel for 1st time

Ministry says 4 cases of highly contagious variant discovered, but stresses no evidence that it causes more severe illness

A test sample collected in Ramle, January 7, 2021 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
A test sample collected in Ramle, January 7, 2021 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The Health Ministry said on Saturday that four cases of the highly contagious South African coronavirus strain had been identified in Israel, the first time the mutated variant had been discovered in the country.

The ministry said that four cases had been found after an advanced testing program. They included a traveler who recently returned from South Africa and family members of another individual who had traveled from there.

Travelers returning from the United Kingdom and South Africa have their test samples sent for advanced checks.

The Health Ministry emphasized that although the variant was more contagious, there was no evidence that it causes more severe illness.

A technician collects nasal swab samples for coronavirus, at a lab in Ben-Gurion International Airport on December 14, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

However, the UK and South African variants are causing global concern.

The strains share a common mutation called N501Y, a slight alteration on one spot of the spike protein that coats the virus. That change is believed to be the reason they can spread so easily. The variant first discovered in South Africa has an additional mutation named E484K.

Viruses constantly undergo minor changes as they spread from person to person. Scientists have used these slight modifications to track how the coronavirus has moved around the globe since it was first detected in China about a year ago.

An initial study released by Pfizer using blood samples of 20 people who had received their vaccine found that it remained effective against the British strain, with indications it could also work against South African strain, but more testing is needed.

Police at a temporary roadblock in the city of Netanya on January 8, 2021, during a 3rd nationwide full lockdown, in an effort to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

A military task force confirmed on Sunday that the new British strain is spreading in Israel, urging stricter restrictions and a complete shutdown of the education system. Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash reportedly told ministers that 30 people with the strain had managed to infect 189.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan declared a “major incident″ on Friday as the rapid spread of the virus variant pushed hospitals to breaking point, with the number of hospitalized coronavirus patients up 27% in the week to January 6.

One in 30 people in Britain’s capital was infected with the virus in the week of January 2, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Medical staff prepare to administer Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines, Jan. 8, 2021 (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Israel’s infection rates have remained high but steady, according to figures released Friday afternoon, after the country tightened its lockdown in an effort to curb a raging COVID-19 outbreak that is threatening to overshadow its successful vaccination campaign.

Some 115,000 people received their first dose of the COVID-19 shot Thursday, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said, bringing the total number of Israelis inoculated to 1.7 million out of a population of 9.29 million, by far the highest vaccination rate in the world. The Health Ministry said more than 70 percent of Israelis over the age of 60 have now received the first shot.

However, daily coronavirus cases nationwide were around 8,000 for the fourth day in a row, according to Health Ministry figures.

The almost empty roads in Tel Aviv, during Israel’s 3rd nationwide lockdown. January 09, 2021 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Health Ministry said 7,611 cases were confirmed Thursday, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the country to 477,357 since the pandemic began.

There were 65,008 active cases. Of them, 920 people were in serious condition, including 283 listed as being in critical condition, with 224 on ventilators. Another 263 were in moderate condition, and the rest had mild or no symptoms.

The death toll rose to 3,596.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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