New Omicron Sub-variants Drive Rise in COVID Cases in Israel

A combination of several offshoots of the omicron variant, which contributed to a spike in infection rates over the winter, are behind recent rise in COVID cases, figures show. Expert says they may be more infectious, but not necessarily lead to serious illness

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
People wear face masks in Tel Aviv after Israel relaxed its COVID mask rules, in April.
People wear face masks in Tel Aviv after Israel relaxed its COVID mask rules, in April.Credit: Hadas Parush
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Israel's COVID czar said on Wednesday that the rise in coronavirus cases in the country can be attributed to BA.5, an offshoot of the omicron variant. But the rising figures – after months of relatively low infection – are caused by several variants, according to a breakdown of new cases and health experts.

The omicron variant that was behind a surge in infection rates this past winter was BA.1. After that wave subsided, cases rose again in April due to BA.2, which is 30 percent more infectious than its predecessor.

That variant remained dominant throughout May, and as of the end of the month, it accounted for 65 percent of diagnosed cases, with the rest stemming from other variants in the omicron family.

The BA.5 sub-variant accounted for 15 percent of diagnosed cases as of the end of May and BA.2.12.1 variant accounted to 12 percent of cases. Around five percent of the cases registered until the end of May were attributed to BA.4.

Prof. Cyrille Cohen, the head of Bar-Ilan University’s immunotherapy lab, said that omicron’s split into several sub-variants had been expected, “because the original omicron variant was very infectious and many people were exposed to it.” New variants develop in the body, he explained, so the greater the number of people who are infected, the greater the chances of the virus mutating.

“The variants contain various mutations, but they’re basically similar to omicron,” Cohen continued. While the later variants are apparently 15 to 25 percent more infectious than BA.2, “at the moment, there’s no evidence that they cause illness that’s more violent or clinically different from what we’ve known with the omicron family to date. In any case, it’s impossible at this stage to point to a single variant; we’re talking about a group.”

The omicron variants all cause less severe illness than earlier variants such as delta and alpha, he noted. “Moreover, the public’s immunity situation is different than it was a year or two ago. Most of the population was exposed to omicron or other variants of the coronavirus, and in addition, the vaccines provide protection against serious illness. So even though we’re at the start of a wave, our opening position is completely different.”

More than 4 million Israelis are confirmed to have recovered from the coronavirus, with more than half of them having been infected during the omicron wave. But the actual figure is thought to be much higher, since many omicron cases were either never diagnosed or diagnosed through home tests and never reported. Many of these recovered patients have also been vaccinated, so they are highly protected against severe illness.

On Wednesday, Israeli health experts recommended reinstating mask mandate indoors in the wake of rising COVID infections. The Health Ministry pandemic taskforce refrained from recommending administrating a fifth vaccine shot and said an ongoing monitoring of the situation is needed.

The number of new cases rose Wednesday to 4,585 from 3,731 the previous day – the highest number since April 25. The infection rate known as the R number – the average number of people each coronavirus carrier infects – has risen to 1.19. Any R number over 1 means the pandemic is spreading.

According to the World Health Organization, the number of new coronavirus cases and deaths reported globally fell everywhere last week except the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

In its latest weekly update on the pandemic, the UN health agency said Wednesday that confirmed cases dropped 12 percent to more than 3 million and reported deaths declined 22 percent to about 7,600.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the continuing decline of COVID, which peaked in January, as “a very encouraging trend.” “The perception that the pandemic is over is understandable, but misguided,” the WHO chief said. “A new and even more dangerous variant could emerge at any time, and vast numbers of people remain unprotected.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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