Israel Detects First Cases of New COVID Variant BA.5 in Incoming Passengers

Two people arriving at Israel's international airport carried the new variant, a day after announcing the first cases of a similar variant, BA.4

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
Ben-Gurion International Airport on Sunday.
Ben-Gurion International Airport on Sunday.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Two people arriving at Ben-Gurion International Airport were found to be carrying the BA.5 variant of the coronavirus, which hadn’t previously been detected in Israel, the Health Ministry said on Tuesday.

It also announced a third confirmed case of the BA.4 variant. The first two cases were discovered at the airport last week, the ministry reported on Monday.

Two weeks ago, the World Health Organization said it had begun monitoring the BA.4 and BA.5 variants after several cases were found in some African and European countries. These variants have additional mutations on top of the ones found in earlier offshoots of the omicron variant, the organization explained, so it’s important to monitor their ability to evade vaccines and reinfect people who have recovered from COVID-19.

While variants develop in viruses all the time, it added, only some of them affect the virus’ ability to spread, cause serious illness or evade immunity.

The dominant variant in Israel today is BA.2, another offshoot of omicron. It is responsible for more than 90 percent of new cases.

In late March, Britain’s Health Security Agency reported cases of BA.4 in South Africa, Denmark, Botswana, Scotland and England. However, there is so far no evidence that this variant is more infectious or more violent than other variants in the omicron family.

On Sunday, the media reported that the Health Ministry was considering changing its coronavirus testing policy at Ben-Gurion Airport in light of the decline in incidence of the virus. Ministry officials said they would consider various options for easing the policy, such as testing only a sample of returning passengers or cutting the list of countries from which testing upon arrival is required. Some experts even argue that the post-flight tests should be eliminated entirely.

Israel is currently one of the few countries that require people to get tested at the airport after landing. Most countries only require a preflight COVID test. Every person who lands at Ben-Gurion Airport must pay for the post-flight test, which costs 60 shekels ($18) if booked in advance and 80 shekels ($24) otherwise, and then remain in isolation for 24 hours unless a negative result is received earlier.

On Saturday, the rule requiring people to wear masks indoors ended for most venues, but it remains in force in high-risk places like hospitals, nursing homes and airplanes. People en route to isolation must also mask.

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