New COVID Sub-variant Detected in Three Passengers Returning to Israel

The sub-variant was identified after COVID samples from the three passengers were sequenced at Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport

Ido Efrati
Travelers in Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport, this month.
Travelers in Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport, this month.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Ido Efrati

Three people who returned this week to Israel from abroad have been identified with the BA.4 sub-variant, the Health Ministry said on Monday.

The new BA.4 sub-variant has been spreading in recent days in South Africa and causing an increase in the country's infection rate, Israel's Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center said.

The sub-variant was identified after samples from the three passengers were sequenced at Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport. The passengers had returned from South Africa, Singapore and Italy.

The ministry said that there is no further information about the sub-variant at this stage.

The Health Ministry said Sunday it would evaluate its testing policy at Ben-Gurion Airport in light of the declining rate of COVID infections, with some experts calling for abolishing testing at the airport altogether.

However, a meeting on the matter has not yet been scheduled and it is unclear what new policy, if any, will be instituted.

Health officials plan to assess the situation by the end of the week after summarizing "the situation during the holidays, the percentage of positive tests, and data on variants that entered the country," according to a ministry official.

Testing at entry points into Israel, the official said “are intended to identify the entry of new variants from abroad and this is certainly very important. Will sampling give the answer? We’ll have to examine this in the coming week.”

According to ministry officials, in the near future, the ministry will examine various means to partially reduce testing requirements, whether by testing a sample of people entering the country or officially reducing the list of destination countries that require COVID testing upon arrival in Israel.

The World Health Organization said on Monday it is tracking a few dozen cases of two new sub-variants of the highly transmissible omicron strain of the coronavirus to assess whether they are more infectious or dangerous.

It has added BA.4 and BA.5, sister variants of the original BA.1 omicron variant, to its list for monitoring. It is already tracking BA.1 and BA.2—now globally dominant—as well as BA.1.1 and BA.3.

The WHO said it had begun tracking them because of their "additional mutations that need to be further studied to understand their impact on immune escape potential."

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