Israeli COVID variant found, has infected hundreds, doesn’t challenge vaccines

Local variant has spread across a large stretch of country, but is thought unlikely to affect vaccine effectiveness or make virus more contagious or dangerous

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Shaare Zedek hospital team members wearing safety gear as they work in the coronavirus ward in Jerusalem on January 19, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Shaare Zedek hospital team members wearing safety gear as they work in the coronavirus ward in Jerusalem on January 19, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Scientists have discovered an Israeli coronavirus variant, and believe there are hundreds of cases of the mutation in the north, south and center of the country — but they don’t believe it poses a challenge to vaccine effectiveness.

The variant has so far been confirmed in around 180 patients, from Haifa in the north to Beersheba in the south, but as the sequencing necessary for identifying it only takes place in samples from a minority of patients, it is believed that numerous other cases exist.

The variant’s defining characteristic is a change of four amino acids in a location of the spike protein called 681. It was first discovered in July, but was only documented now, according to a Health Ministry statement.

“It’s clear from the changes we saw that there’s something quite unique to Israel, which is why it is believed to have started in Israel,” Prof. Michal Linial, a member of the team that analyzed it for the ministry, told The Times of Israel.

Medical workers test Israelis at a drive-through coronavirus testing site in Safed on February 1, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

She said that other countries have seen variants with changes in this location, but none with the particular pattern researchers identified. And she said it’s a foregone conclusion that it will keep developing.

“I can promise it will mutate further,” stated Linial, a Hebrew University biochemist.

Nevertheless, the Health Ministry has released a statement stressing that the variant is “of no clinical or epidemiological significance,” and Linial said she believes there is no need for concern.

“We’re pretty sure it will not impact the effectiveness of vaccination,” Linial said. “The mutation is at an important site in the virus, but it doesn’t actually give the virus any added benefit.”

Hebrew University biologist Michal Linial (courtesy of Michal Linial)

She elaborated: “It doesn’t seem to be more contagious, more spreadable or have any added severity. It’s important to follow the variant, but it doesn’t seem to have severe functionality or virology.”

This is also likely to be true for any future mutations that emerge from it, she added.

That being the case, Linial doesn’t expect the variant to spread wildly in Israel, as it is less transmissible than the British variant, which now accounts for some 90 percent of Israel’s COVID cases.

“When there is someone stronger, they are like the bully in high school who has control, and the British variant is like this,” she said.

Linial said that the variant was sequenced at Sheba Medical Center and she was part of the analysis team.

“Since the UK mutation became so widespread, in Israel, like many other places in the world, we started to do much more sequencing. This is good, as if you don’t sequence you’ll never know about any mutation. And because sequencing has been so scaled up, labs saw this variant.”

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