Fearing that the Omicron variant had reached the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority transferred 100 coronavirus samples to an Israeli hospital for testing, Israeli and Palestinian officials said on Sunday.
“We have around 100 samples that we suspect [may have the variant]. We’ve transferred those to Tel Hashomer hospital, where they will be tested, and we’re waiting for answers from there,” Palestinian Authority Health Minister Mai al-Kaila told official Voice of Palestine radio on Sunday morning.
The new Omicron variant has raised concerns around the world, leading some countries to reimpose tightened restrictions on travel. Israel shut its borders to most foreign tourists in late November while officials seek to determine the severity of the threat posed by the new strain.
According to al-Kaila, the majority of the suspected cases are among Palestinians who returned to the West Bank from Jordan in recent days. She added that Palestinian health officials have not been able to confirm whether the variant had reached Palestinian areas.
“But just because we haven’t identified any cases doesn’t mean they aren’t there,” al-Kaila said.
A spokesperson for the Israeli Health Ministry confirmed al-Kaila’s remarks. The official added that it was not yet clear whether the Palestinians in question had been infected with the new Omicron variant or with the highly contagious Delta mutation that wreaked havoc across the world in the summer.
The new coronavirus variant emerged after Palestinians had seen falling infection rates for several weeks. After several tough bouts with the virus, both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank saw the number of cases stabilize over the past month.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, 431,588 Palestinians have been infected with the coronavirus in the West Bank and Gaza, according to official PA statistics. Some 4,546 Palestinians have reportedly perished from the virus.
Many Palestinians were initially hesitant to be vaccinated, but rates crept up following restrictions and incentives implemented by health authorities in the West Bank and Gaza. Around 50 percent of eligible Palestinians have received a shot as of Sunday; officials have also begun issuing third doses to boost immunity.
But vaccination rates still vary widely across Palestinian territories. In relatively well-heeled Ramallah, which serves as the PA’s administrative seat, around 77% of eligible Palestinians have been vaccinated. In the impoverished Gaza Strip, which is ruled by Hamas terrorists, just 35% of Palestinians have gotten a shot; hundreds of thousands of doses remain to be used, according to official Hamas figures.