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'We don't know enough' about the Indian variant, she warns

Top Israeli health official: Not clear if vaccine effective against India strain

Sharon Alroy-Preis urges air travel restrictions; fumes over government’s ‘disgraceful’ refusal to curb Lag B’Omer festivities at Meron, expected to draw hundreds of thousands

Travelers at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on April 18, 2021 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Travelers at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on April 18, 2021 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

A top health official on Wednesday said it was not clear that COVID-19 vaccines offer protection against the so-called Indian variant of the disease, and cited this concern as a key reason why Israel must ban travel to countries with high coronavirus infection rates.

“We don’t know about the Indian variant, we don’t know enough,” Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, said of the strain of the disease ravaging India. Asked about claims and indications that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is effective against the Indian strain, she said: “I didn’t see any research on this.”

Earlier Wednesday, BioNTech co-founder Ugur Sahin voiced confidence that the vaccine his company jointly developed with Pfizer — the primary vaccine used in Israel — works against the Indian variant.

“We are still testing the Indian variant, but the Indian variant has mutations that we have already tested for and which our vaccine works against, so I am confident,” said Sahin.

In an interview with Channel 13, Alroy-Preis also warned that mass Lag B’Omer gatherings at a Galilee pilgrimage site on Thursday night, expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people, could drive an outbreak of the coronavirus. She said a framework had been painstakingly negotiated “by everyone” to regulate the gathering, and fumed that it had not been implemented. “It’s a disgrace,” she said.

She expressed support for the Health Ministry’s proposed new travel restrictions for Israelis, which would ban travel to seven high-risk countries including India, and force even vaccinated travelers from those countries to enter quarantine upon their return to Israel. Israel has issued a travel warning for seven countries: India, Ukraine, Ethiopia, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico and Turkey. Again, though, Alroy-Preis, complained, the urgent restrictions have not been implemented.

The Health Ministry’s recommendations, which have not yet been adopted by the government because ministers in the outgoing coalition have been arguing over other issues this week, would also require non-citizens entering Israel from the specified highly infected countries to self-isolate in quarantine hotels.

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis during a briefing in January 2021. (video screenshot)

The senior health official said the regulations are aimed at preventing the import of new strains of the virus into the country amid fears the variants could prove resistant to the vaccines.

Alroy-Preis specifically cautioned that when the Ramadan holiday is over, many Arab Israelis are expected to seek to travel to Turkey, one of the countries flagged by the ministry as high risk.

Travellers at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on April 18, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The World Health Organization has said the B.1.617 variant of COVID-19 first found in India had as of Tuesday been detected in “at least 17 countries.”

A man in protective suit digs earth to bury the body of a person who died of COVID-19 in Gauhati, India, April 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath, File)

The health agency recently listed B.1.617 — which counts several sub-lineages with slightly different mutations and characteristics — as a “variant of interest.”

But so far it has stopped short of declaring it a “variant of concern,” which would have indicated that it is more dangerous than the original version of the virus by, for instance, being more transmissible, deadly, or able to dodge vaccine protections.

‘A disgrace’

In the interview on Wednesday, Alroy-Preis was highly critical of the government for failing to introduce health restrictions over the festival of Lag B’Omer, which is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to Meron from Thursday night.

“Tomorrow is Lag B’Omer. There are no special regulations. It’s a disgrace,” she said.

Grand Rabbi of Shomer Emunim (Hasidic dynasty) and his followers seen during a ceremony at the Rashbi gravesite in Meron, near Tzfat, April 27, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

“We worked for weeks on a framework. It was approved by all the parties, by the police, by the Religious Affairs Ministry, by the Interior Ministry — everyone. But in the end it fell because no one would take responsibility for enforcement,” she said, accusing the government authorities of passing the buck.

With hundreds of thousands in Meron “there is a danger of contagion,” she said.

Last year’s Lag B’Omer festivities at Meron — the gravesite of second century CE sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai —  were limited to 150 people under government health regulations as the pandemic raged. Usually, the event draws some 250,000 visitors, mostly from the ultra-Orthodox community.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, 5,000 police officers will secure the Lag B’Omer events at Meron on Thursday night and Friday. Up to 10,000 pilgrims will be allowed into the main area at a given time, and only if vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19, though no limits will be imposed in the surrounding town and adjacent parking lots set up for the event, the broadcaster said.

File photo: Ultra orthodox Jewish men take part in celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag Baomer on Mt. Meron in northern Israel on May 6, 2014. (Photo credit: Basel Awidat/Flash90)

Lag B’Omer has become a key holiday in the Jewish mystical tradition, said to be the day of the death of Shimon Bar Yochai, and the anniversary of when he first conveyed the text of the seminal Jewish mystical work, the Zohar. It also marks the end of a minor mourning period recognizing the deaths of thousands of students of Rabbi Akiva in a plague.

With its aggressive vaccination drive, Israel has seen a sharp drop in daily mortality and infection rates since the pandemic peaked in late January. Since the start of the outbreak last year Israel was placed under three lockdowns, the last of which began in January and has largely been lifted over the past few months.

Israel is currently seeing around 100 new virus cases per day.

As infections have dwindled, Israel has rolled back restrictions on public life, including lifting the requirement to wear face masks outdoors, which ended last week.

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