Israel Sees a Surge in Infections From South African COVID Strain

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Hospital in Ramat Gan, Israel. Some 3,000 Israelis contracted the South African COVID strain
Hospital in Ramat Gan, Israel. Some 3,000 Israelis contracted the South African COVID strainCredit: RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

At least 238 coronavirus patients in Israel are ill with the South African variant of the virus, according to information obtained by Haaretz. Most of the confirmed cases were detected in 29 chains of infection that weave through numerous cities and towns, including Petah Tikva, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

However, 24 of those ill with the variant were discovered during random testing in the community. The Health Ministry sees this as evidence that this variant is continuing to spread and there are other cases that haven’t yet come to light. Two of the sick people had previously recovered from a COVID-19 infection.

Some 3,000 Israelis have been tested specifically for the South African strain of the virus; many were either confirmed cases who had recently returned from abroad, people who had come in contact with them, or confirmed cases in places with localized outbreaks.

As of Tuesday, 54 of the 238 confirmed cases with this strain have had full genetic sequencing of the virus. Sixty-four additional cases were identified by a PCR test specifically aimed at this variant. Another 120 confirmed cases were identified as having been infected by those 118 people.

More than 30 of these cases were in Petah Tikva, while over 20 were located in Tel Aviv. But confirmed cases were found in another 25 cities and towns, among them Ramat Gan, Holon, Bat Yam, Lod, Yavne, Rishon Letzion, Ramle, Taibeh and Rahat.

On Sunday the Health Ministry said that only 168 people had been detected with the South African strain. This indicates that the strain is spreading very quickly.

Most Israeli labs cannot distinguish between the different variants of the virus through the PCR test most commonly used to diagnose COVID-19. Special testing kits available at the Leumit health maintenance organization’s lab can identify the British variant pretty accurately, and this is the primary method used to follow the spread of the British variant. According to Dr. Yotam Shenhar, lab director at Leumit, dozens of suspicious positive samples are sent for special genetic sequencing every week, and the British variant has been found in more than 90 percent of them.

The attempt to block the different strains of the virus from coming into Israel began toward the end of December, when everyone who returned from abroad was placed into quarantine in coronavirus “hotels.” But it turned out that it was too late and the British variant was already in the country.

By January 10, the Health Ministry reported finding the first four cases of the South African variant in Israel, all of which were linked to a man who had spent time in South Africa. By January 27 there were 30 confirmed cases, with three of them discovered in random testing in the community that were not part of these chains of infection.

The South African variant (B.1.3512) developed separately from the British version. Like its predecessor, it contains 20 mutations, but unlike previous versions, it includes three mutations to the virus’ spike protein, the part that gains the virus entry into human cells. These means this variant has evolved quite a bit from the original version on which the vaccine was based.

On Tuesday Israel’s research center on the virus said that based on new lab studies, the two-dose Pfizer vaccine is expected to also be effective against the South African variant.

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