BA.2 Variant Drives Up Israel's COVID Infection Rate Ahead of Purim Holiday

COVID in Israel: Despite spread of coronavirus variant, experts say mass reinfection unlikely after 'omicron infected half the country'

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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A coronavirus ward at Shamir Medical Center, in central Israel, in January.
A coronavirus ward at Shamir Medical Center, in central Israel, in January.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Health Ministry officials are worried about the continued rise in the rate of COVID infections and its possible effects on the number of patients in serious condition, as the infectious BA.2 variant continues to spread ahead of the Purim holidays.

"We are still seeing a continued decrease in the number of infections in all groups and ages, but the infection rate has begun to rise in the past week," Prof. Salman Zarka, the head of the national effort to fight the coronavirus, said.

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The fifth wave of COVID has been receding for a few weeks, but in the past few days the pace of this decrease has slowed. The infection rate, known as the R number – the average number of people each coronavirus carrier infects – was 0.67 a month ago, but according to Health Ministry data, this number rose to 0.91 Tuesday morning.

The pandemic is in decline as long as this infection rate is less than 1, but the recent rise shows that this pace has slowed – and may be reversed. The R number is based on statistics from 10 days earlier.

Health officials attribute the slowing decline in COVID to the BA.2 variant, which is similar to the omicron in its structure and characteristics, but is 1.3 times more infectious. However, experts say that people who have recovered from omicron have a very low chance of being reinfected with BA.2.

Last week, the number of cases of infection with BA.2 passed that of the omicron variant, with 60 percent of the 242 cases that underwent genetic sequencing last week being identified as BA.2 infections.

As for the increase in BA.2 variant infections, Zarka said “the relative percentage of the new variant may be higher, but quantitatively there is no increase in the number of people infected with it – the percentage rose because of the decrease in the omicron infections.”

But, it is possible that the new variant will contribute to a rise in COVID cases – as has happened in Britain and Germany. “It can create a small wave whose onset may be seen as early as next week,” Zarka added.

BA.2 has become more common in several countries since the start of the year, and last month cases of the new variant outnumbered omicron globally.

While it is more resistant to vaccines, the variant doesn't lead to more serious illness than omicron. Experts stress that vaccines still offer significant protection against serious illness, especially with a booster shot.

Israel confirmed more than 2 million coronavirus cases during the fifth wave, but Prof. Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot estimates the actual number was higher. “According to my assessment, omicron infected about half the country, so another significant wave of omicron is not expected in the near future.”

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