Israel Losing Its Edge in Fight Against Omicron as Infections Spike

With omicron cases expected to more than double by the end of the week and waning immunity the country braces for a fifth wave

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
Shoppers at Jerusalem's Mahaneh Yehuda market in October.
Shoppers at Jerusalem's Mahaneh Yehuda market in October.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Israel is likely to face thousands of COVID cases caused by the new omicron variant within the next two to four weeks, according to a Health Ministry forecast presented to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett over the weekend.

Ministry officials expect that the new variant will lead to exponential spread given that it is three times as contagious as the delta variant which is currently dominant in Israel.

There have already been 175 cases of the omicron variant diagnosed in the country, but by the end of this week, ministry staffers expect that number to more than double to at least 400 cases. And there are already another 380 cases in which omicron is “highly suspected” and being investigated.

The numbers are still relatively small, but the increase in the number of confirmed COVID cases and the jump in the R number – which represents how many people the average infected person infects – has led some experts to believe that undetected omicron cases are already responsible for the rise in case numbers.

As a result of the spread of omicron around the world, Israel is preparing for a fifth COVID wave. In cabinet deliberations, Knesset committee meetings and among public health officials, the approaching fifth wave is considered a fact, echoing Bennett's declaration on Sunday that the "fifth wave has begun."

Mamila Mall in Jerusalem, in December.Credit: Emil Salman

In the meantime, the daily number of confirmed coronavirus cases continues to swell, approaching 1,000 at a time when the R number has already climbed to 1.22, well above the 1.0 threshold, indicating the spread of the virus.

Ben-Gurion International Airport was a significant gateway for the virus into Israel until this week’s decision to expand the number of "red countries", out-of-bounds travel destinations other than under special circumstances.

As of midnight between Tuesday and Wednesday, countries including the United States, Canada, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Belgium are being added to the red list – effectively barring most Israelis from most of Europe and Africa.

Of the 981 new cases diagnosed on Sunday, 205 are people who returned from abroad over the past week and a half, mostly from the United States, France, Britain, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

At this point, it seems that pleas to the public to get vaccinated are falling on deaf ears. An average of 21,000 doses are being administered in Israel every day. That includes everyone from age 5 and up who currently qualifies for the vaccine – from children and recovered COVID patients getting their first shot to Israelis receiving a second or third dose.

Even before taking into account the fact that vaccines do not provide immediate protection, the pace at which Israelis are being vaccinated appears to be far slower than what officials believe necessary to soften the blow from another wave.

Israel was a step ahead of most of the rest of the world in getting its population initial vaccine doses, and this is the first time since the beginning of the vaccination campaign that Israel’s collective vaccine-induced immunity has significantly eroded.

This is due to a combination of factors: the omicron variant’s characteristics, the vaccine’s reduced effectiveness in preventing omicron infection and hospitalizations, and the fact that nearly 40 percent of the Israeli population isn’t fully protected against the coronavirus.

Over the weekend, the World Health Organization announced that the omicron variant was spreading much more quickly than delta and that the number of omicron infections was doubling every one-and-a-half to three days.

So far, omicron has been identified in 89 countries, and is spreading quickly even in countries whose populations were highly protected against the coronavirus.

Nevertheless, it’s not clear if the pace of the virus' spread is due to the variant’s capacity to evade the antibodies of those who were vaccinated or recovered from other coronavirus strains, the speed at which it can infect people, or a combination of the two.

The vaccines’ effectiveness against omicron is slowly coming into focus, but the picture is still far from clear. As far as is currently known, the vaccines are less effective against omicron than against delta.

“The most reliable information that we know of at the moment comes from Britain,” said Dr. Tal Brosh, the director of the infectious disease unit at the Assuta Ashdod Hospital.

“They examined the efficacy of the vaccine against omicron there, and the findings indicate a very low level of protection among those vaccinated with two doses – ranging from 20 to 40 percent effectiveness in preventing symptomatic illness. Among those vaccinated with three doses, the effectiveness was about 75 percent, compared to 92 percent with delta,” he said.

“From another standpoint, if against the delta variant the vaccine failed in 8 percent of the cases, now the rate is jumping to 25 percent. This is not an analysis of large numbers [of cases] and things could change, but that’s what’s known at the moment. Of course, it’s still worth getting vaccinated with a booster,” Brosh said.

A report from Imperial College in London, presented by the Health Ministry to the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice committee, states that the efficacy of three doses of the Pfizer vaccine – the brand that almost all Israelis have received – ranges between 55 and 80 percent in preventing symptomatic disease.

According to the report, recovery from the omicron variant only provides 19 percent protection against reinfection.

In addition, the findings show that the risk of reinfection among those who have recovered from omicron is five times that of the delta variant. And the risk of patients infected with omicron infecting members of their household is three times that of a patient with the delta variant.

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