Israeli health officials said worried about new COVID-19 strain found in UK

Health Ministry holds meetings on mutation, seeks to test Israelis returning from Britain for new, more infectious variant; report says UK arrivals may have to quarantine at hotels

Shoppers, some wearing a face mask or covering due to the COVID-19 pandemic, look at shop window displays inside a christmas-themed Burlington Arcade in London on December 19, 2020. (Tolga Akmen / AFP)
Shoppers, some wearing a face mask or covering due to the COVID-19 pandemic, look at shop window displays inside a christmas-themed Burlington Arcade in London on December 19, 2020. (Tolga Akmen / AFP)

Israeli health officials are reportedly concerned about a new, more infectious coronavirus strain found in England and are weighing testing those who returned to Israel from the United Kingdom for the variant.

“There have been discussions since this afternoon, and this evening as well. We are considering the ramifications and the necessary steps,” a Health Ministry official told the Ynet news site on Saturday night on condition of anonymity.

One of the suggestions raised at the Health Ministry meetings was ordering genetic sequencing for Israelis who recently returned from the UK and some other European states and later tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the report.

The Kan public broadcaster reported that ministers would also consider compelling arrivals from the UK to stay in government-run hotels for their quarantine period instead of permitting home isolation, as well as weighing the possibility of shutting down Ben Gurion Airport to all international arrivals.

Dr. Gila Rahav, director of the Infectious Diseases Department at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, told the Ynet news site: “The real question is whether the vaccine covers this strain. I imagine that even if it becomes a problem, because the mRNA [technology exists], we would be able to develop a vaccine for this as well.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waits to receive a coronavirus vaccine at the Sheba Medical Center, in Ramat Gan, on December 19, 2020. (AMIR COHEN / POOL / AFP)

She spoke hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein received the first vaccines in the country, as Israel kicked off its inoculation drive.

Rahav also criticized the government for failing to test Israelis entering the country for the virus.

“We need serious monitoring of those returning from abroad. We must start doing genome sequencing tests for those returning from Britain and additional countries where in the coming days it will become clear whether or not the mutation has spread,” she said.

Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy signed an order on Friday that orders returning travelers from all countries into mandatory quarantine, effective from December 26, Channel 12 reported. That, however, was largely aimed at the tens of thousands of Israelis who traveled to Dubai in recent weeks.

A technician collects nasal swab samples for COVID-19 at the coronavirus lab, at Ben-Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv on December 14, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

‘Up to 70% more transmissible’

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday announced a “stay at home” order for London and southeast England to slow the new coronavirus strain.

Early data suggests the new strain could be “up to 70 percent more transmissible,” Johnson said at a televised briefing.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends a virtual press conference inside 10 Downing Street in central London on December 19, 2020. (TOBY MELVILLE / POOL / AFP)

Patrick Vallance, the British government’s chief scientific adviser, said the new strain may be present in other countries.

“This virus has taken off, it’s moving fast, and it’s leading inevitably to a sharp increase in hospital admissions,” said Vallance.

Vallance said that the new coronavirus strain “contains 23 different changes,” including variants that are associated with how the virus binds to cells and enters cells.

By the week beginning December 9, the new strain was accounting for 60 percent of cases in London, he said.

“We think it may be in other countries as well,” he said.

England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty said earlier Saturday that the UK had informed the World Health Organization of its findings about the new coronavirus strain.

Downing Street said that it had also informed the leaders of the other regions of the UK.

There was no evidence that the new strain causes more severe illness or higher mortality, Johnson said.

“Equally, there’s no evidence to suggest the vaccine will be any less effective against the new variant,” he said.

Separately, a severe variant of the coronavirus has been detected in South Africa which could explain the rapid spread of a second wave that affects younger people, the South African health minister said Friday. Known as the 501.V2 Variant, it was identified by South African researchers and details have been sent to the World Health Organization, Zwelini Mkhize said in a statement.

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