The Health Ministry this week recorded an additional 14 confirmed cases of the South African variant in Israel, bringing the total of number of such infections to 44, with 124 confirmed contacts and 36 infection chains. Health officials believe the numbers are substantially higher.
In late January, the first Israeli, a 57-year-old man from central Israel, was reinfected with the South Africa coronavirus variant after returning from a trip to Turkey.
The Health Ministry said in a statement that it was “making an effort to examine the extent of the outbreak” in Israel’s northern “triangle” region, made up of Arab towns and villages where the inoculation rollout has lagged behind the rest of the country due to, among other factors, mistrust in the central government.
The mutation has reached at least 32 countries and induced panic across the globe as countries continue to struggle to advance their vaccination campaigns.
Israel has vaccinated more than 3.9 million of its citizens, more than 40 percent of its total population of about 9 million. Some 2.5 million have received the second dose.
Last month, U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German biotech firm BioNTech released results from lab tests that, while not yet peer-reviewed, showed that their joint vaccine is effective against the N501Y mutation that is found in both the British and South African variants.
In a statement, the companies said the preliminary findings “do not indicate the need for a new vaccine to address the emerging variants,” but they are “prepared to respond” with updates to their shot if necessitated by new strains.
Another vaccine, co-developed by Oxford University and the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, proved to be only minimally effective in preventing mild and moderate forms of covid-19 caused by the variant first identified in South Africa.
Sharon Alroy-Preis, the head of the Israeli Health Ministry’s public health services, said that there is still much that is unknown about the link between vaccine immunity and the emerging coronavirus variants, but the South African strain is believed to be more transmissible.
“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,” she told the Kan public broadcaster last month.
Coronavirus variants have spurred worldwide concern that vaccination campaigns, in the long term, may not be enough to stem future, potentially more severe waves of infection, and may, in the short term, further delay countries’ plans to lift coronavirus restrictions on public life.
On Jan. 25, Israel closed its only functioning international airport, Ben Gurion, “to prevent the entry of the virus mutations and to ensure that we progress quickly with our vaccination campaign,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has since added that he will probably extend the closure past the Feb. 20 deadline, although Israel is expected on Saturday to increase the quota of allowed incoming passengers to 2,000 a day.
But as millions of Israelis continue to get vaccinated and the number of new cases drop, the government is also planning to launch a “green certificate” program as early as next week to enable vaccine recipients to enter public spaces such as stadiums, concert halls, or performance venues.
At the same time, the government is mulling a fifth national lockdown ahead of the carnival-like Jewish holiday of Purim on Feb. 25, which was last year deemed to have been a superspreader event, particularly among ultra-Orthodox Israelis.
“We do not want to stop people from celebrating the holiday and ruining all the fun, but there is still a big worry,” said Israel’s coronavirus czar, Nachman Ash.