Three cases of new Omicron subvariant detected in Israel, says Health Ministry

Cases confirmed in Israelis returning from abroad; scientists say the BA.2.75 COVID variant may be able to spread rapidly and get around immunity from vaccines and past infection

Illustrative: Travelers sit for COVID testing at Ben Gurion Airport on March 8, 2021, upon their arrival from New York. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
Illustrative: Travelers sit for COVID testing at Ben Gurion Airport on March 8, 2021, upon their arrival from New York. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Three cases of a new Omicron mutant that has been popping up in numerous countries have been detected in Israel, the Health Ministry said on Sunday.

Scientists say the variant — called BA.2.75 — may be able to spread rapidly and get around immunity from vaccines and previous infection.

It is unclear whether the new subvariant could cause more serious disease than other Omicron mutations, including the globally prominent BA.5.

All three cases were detected in people returning from abroad. One of the infected was returning from India and two others from France, the ministry said.

“The Health Ministry will continue to follow the situation and update the public accordingly,” the statement read.

According to the latest Health Ministry data, 4,357 people tested positive for the virus in Israel on Saturday, with the rate of positive test results at 36.71%. There are currently 435 seriously ill patients. The virus has claimed 11,168 lives in Israel since the beginning of the pandemic.

It is currently harder to detect coronavirus cases in people landing in Israel, as the country stopped requiring incoming travelers, both Israeli and foreign, to take PCR tests upon landing in May, meaning the actual number of BA.2.75 cases in Israel could potentially be much higher.

So far, the new variant has been gaining ground mostly in India, where it was first detected in May.

Nicknamed “Centaurus,” the relatively new variant has also been detected in other countries as well, including the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, Australia and the Netherlands.

“It’s still really early on for us to draw too many conclusions,” said Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “But it does look like, especially in India, the rates of transmission are showing kind of that exponential increase.”

Whether it will outcompete BA.5, he said, is yet to be determined.

Still, the fact that it has already been detected in many parts of the world even with lower levels of viral surveillance “is an early indication it is spreading,” said Shishi Luo, head of infectious diseases for Helix, a company that supplies viral sequencing information to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva, told AFP that BA.2.75’s spread in India indicated it could be more transmissible than the BA.5 Omicron subvariant, which has been driving waves in Europe and the US.

“It seems to be becoming the dominant strain in India — the question is will it become the dominant strain all over the world?”

Flahault added that previous dominant strains, like Delta, first took over the country they emerged in, before spreading across the world.

A health worker administers Covishield vaccine for COVID-19 at a vaccination center in Hyderabad, India, July 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.)

Meanwhile, a recent UK study has found that the currently prominent BA.5 Omicron subvariant of COVID is more contagious and more resistant to vaccines than previous variants.

Dr. Gregory Poland, head of vaccine research at the US Mayo Clinic, labeled the Omicron subvariant “hypercontagious,” and said there was “very little protection against BA.5 in terms of getting infected or having mild to moderate infection.”

Last week, the European Union said it was “critical” that authorities in the 27-nation bloc consider giving second coronavirus booster shots to people between the ages of 60 and 79 years and other vulnerable people, as a new wave of the pandemic sweeps over the continent.

In the UN health agency’s weekly review of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization said there were 5.7 million new infections confirmed last week, marking a 6% increase. There were 9,800 deaths, roughly similar to the previous week’s figure.

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