More Infectious Variant of Omicron Likely to Become Israel's Dominant COVID Strain

BA.2 is accounting for a growing share of new COVID cases, but experts are divided on its significance

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Positive COVID antigen tests at a testing station in Givatayim, in January.
Positive COVID antigen tests at a testing station in Givatayim, in January.Credit: Hadas Parush
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

A close and even more infectious relative of the coronavirus’ omicron variant seems likely to become the dominant strain in Israel, the government’s COVID Information Center said on Thursday.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to predict the significance of the BA.2 variant’s spread, given that more than 3.6 million Israelis have already had COVID-19 and almost seven million have been vaccinated, including 4.5 million who have already gotten the booster.

The report warned that BA.2 had recently accounted for an increasing share of coronavirus infections in Israel, and this “could slow the decline in infections and eventually perhaps even halt it.” But other sources said there is as yet no sign of this happening.

A source at one of the health maintenance organizations said that based on PCR tests taken over the last week, BA.2 accounted for around 30 percent of recent infections. Nevertheless, “this doesn’t seem to have significantly affected the [overall] reproduction rate,” he added, referring to the number of people each patient infects, also known as the R number.

Another source involved in monitoring the pandemic added that “BA.2’s spread has been happening for quite some time in Israel, which indicates that it is more infectious, but not in such an extreme fashion that it changes the picture, at least for now. Obviously, this requires continued monitoring.”

BA.2 is around 30 percent more infectious than omicron, and as with omicron, even three doses of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine is only 50 percent effective at preventing symptomatic infection. However, people who have had omicron are at very low risk of catching BA.2, compared to people infected with earlier variants of the virus.

Experts say that while BA.2 resembles omicron in many ways, it does have some differences. “It behaves differently in different countries,” said a senior virologist quoted in an earlier Haaretz report. “In some countries, we see it spreading rapidly when omicron is declining but spreading slowly in paces where omicron is at its peak.”

Nevertheless, he added, the speed at which it spreads depends on many parameters, including what proportion of the population has been vaccinated or recovered. Consequently, “it’s very hard to analyze and predict.”

Despite the spread of BA.2, the number of daily new cases in Israel has fallen steadily from its peak of around 85,000 to 8,280 on Wednesday. The R number has risen modestly, to 0.72, but anything below 1.0 means the pandemic is still shrinking rather than expanding. The number of seriously ill patients has also declined and currently stands at 510.

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