Health Ministry urges: Avoid all 'unnecessary' travel abroad

Israel issues travel warning for 7 high-infection countries amid variant fears

List features some of the nations worst-hit by COVID, including India; top health official says vaccines may offer less protection against Indian strain

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

The Health Ministry on Thursday issued an advisory urging Israelis to avoid travel to seven countries experiencing significant COVID-19 outbreaks, citing concerns of possible coronavirus strains that may be more resistant to vaccines coming from those nations.

The countries listed in the travel warning were Ukraine, Ethiopia, Brazil, South Africa, India, Mexico and Turkey.

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

“It should be stressed that even the vaccinated or recovered could become infected with new versions of the virus in the outbreak areas, thus not only endangering themselves and those close to them, but the entire country,” a Health Ministry statement said.

The ministry said the seven countries 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 warning came as health officials express concerns over a new mutated strain detected in India, which is dealing with one of the worst outbreaks since the pandemic began in 2019.

Chezy Levy, director-general of the Health Ministry, speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem on February 10, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a briefing to reporters Thursday, the director-general of the Health Ministry said vaccines may be less effective against the “Indian variant,” saying it has a number of mutations that make it more infectious.

“We don’t feel comfortable with it,” Chezy Levy said.

He reiterated the ministry’s call to avoid international travel due to the various outbreaks worldwide.

The Health Ministry has so far confirmed seven cases of the variant among seven 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 still quarantining, national coronavirus czar Nachman Ash said Saturday. He added that not very much is known about the new variant but that it appears to spread rapidly.

“This mutation… has some bad signs about it. We are comparing the findings in the genetic sequencing to what we know and there are some indications that it may be resistant to the vaccine,” Ash said, adding quickly that, so far, the Pfizer vaccine has been effective against known mutations.

A health worker wearing protective equipment stands with a patient being transferred to an intensive care unit, inside an ambulance at a recovery center to treat COVID-19 patients, in Mumbai on April 22, 2021. (Punit Paranjpe/AFP)

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.

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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