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Top health official fears vaccine less effective against South African strain

But Sharon Alroy-Preis says no evidence any variant can completely bypass the inoculation; nearly 3 million Israelis have received 1st shot, 1.7 million of them have had both

People receives a Covid-19 vaccine injection, at Clalit Covid-19 vaccination center in Jerusalem, on January 28, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
People receives a Covid-19 vaccine injection, at Clalit Covid-19 vaccination center in Jerusalem, on January 28, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

A top health official on Saturday said there were preliminary indications the coronavirus vaccines may prove less effective in shielding against the South African variant.

“We don’t have evidence yet that any of the variants are completely resistant to the vaccine, but there is some preliminary evidence to say that perhaps the effectiveness of the vaccine is somewhat less against the South African variant,” Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the head of public health services at the Health Ministry, told the Kan public broadcaster.

“Here in Israel, we’re doing tests and are trying to check its [the vaccine’s] effectiveness against” the South African variant,” she added.

Pfizer and BioNTech, whose vaccine is being used in Israel’s world-leading vaccine drive, said Thursday that early tests suggest their immunization would be protective against the variants from South Africa and Britain.

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis. (Courtesy)

Their study found that the antibodies were able to neutralize all the sets of mutations tested. It noted that the effect was “slightly lower” against three mutations in the variant found in South Africa, including E484K. But the firms said that it was “unlikely to lead to a significant reduction in the effectiveness of the vaccine.”

The Health Ministry last week confirmed that three more cases of the South African coronavirus variant have been found in Israel, bringing the total number of infections from the strain to 30. Three of the cases were discovered in a random sampling, raising concerns of undetected community spread.

Meanwhile, the British variant is spreading wildly in Israel, with health officials blaming the high coronavirus caseload after weeks of lockdown to the UK mutation. The daily infections continue to remain in the thousands, despite Israel’s strict restrictions and vaccination campaign.

Nearly 3 million Israelis — almost one-third of its population — have received the first dose of the vaccine, and 1.7 million have received both shots.

Ten staff members at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Medical Center were diagnosed with the coronavirus Saturday, five days after receiving the second dose of a coronavirus vaccine. None have experienced symptoms. The vaccine is thought to reach full potency about a week after the second shot.

A man receives a COVID-19 vaccine injection in Jerusalem on January 28, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

According to several reports Saturday, the Health Ministry is considering temporarily canceling the exemption those vaccinated have been given from quarantine after contact with a confirmed carrier, as it is not yet clear whether vaccination prevents a person from carrying and transmitting the virus to others, even while protecting the person from becoming sick themselves. Given the still-high infection rates, officials may err on the side of caution and revoke exemptions for a time.

In an effort to keep the virus variants out of the country, Israel has closed its main international airport, including to its own citizens. The order is set to expire Sunday, but will likely be extended.

The government on Sunday is expected to extend the nationwide lockdown by another week to drive down infection rates.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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