Israel restricting travel from southern Africa

Israel detects its first case of new, highly mutated COVID-19 strain

2 other returnees from Malawi also suspected to have contagious B.1.1.529 variant; all 3 were vaccinated; PM calls meeting, urges purchase of PCR kits that better detect the strain

Travelers arriving at Ben Gurion Airport, on November 1, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Travelers arriving at Ben Gurion Airport, on November 1, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The first case of a new, highly mutated coronavirus variant that first emerged in South Africa was detected in Israel on Friday, the Health Ministry announced, a development that experts have been fearing.

The person was identified as an Israeli who had returned from Malawi.

The ministry said two others were suspected of also being infected with the new strain, currently known by its scientific name B.1.1.529, and were awaiting final test results.

All three were vaccinated, the ministry said, adding that their inoculation details were still being verified.

Following the announcement, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office said he would hold a discussion Friday afternoon with Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and experts.

The statement said Bennett 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.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on November 21, 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/pool/Flash90)

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.

In Israel, Health Ministry data on Thursday showed that 543 people had been diagnosed the previous day, with the number representing 0.70 percent of the nearly 84,000 tests conducted.

There were 163 hospitalized individuals, of whom 120 were in serious condition. Data showed nearly 85% of serious cases are 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.

A medic tests Israelis at a drive-through complex to check if they have been infected with the coronavirus, in Modi’in, on November 10, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

“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 Thursday 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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