Israel has identified the first cases of a new COVID-19 variant, first found in South Africa and neighboring countries, prompting Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Friday to announce a ban on arrivals from most African countries and warn that the country is on the brink of a state of emergency.
The variant – called Omicron – has a "very unusual constellation" of mutations, which are concerning because they could help it evade the body's immune response and make it more transmissible, according to experts. Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said on Friday it appeared that there were four cases of the variant in Israel.
Following a meeting with health officials, Bennett announced that subjects to approval by the coronavirus cabinet, African countries, except for those in north Africa, would be classified as "red," meaning non-Israelis will not be able to enter if they departed from those countries.
"We are in a new situation," Bennett said in a press conference. "The variant arriving from South Africa is highly concerning" and has raised alarms in the Health Ministry and among epidemiologists worldwide.
He added that South Africa has seen "a sharp rise in cases within a week" and that the new variant had surpassed the delta variant to be the dominant one in that country. It is likely that there are additional cases of this variant in Israel, he said.
Horowitz meanwhile said his ministry was working on improving PCR tests to allow them to test for the new variant more accurately. The ministry is isolating samples of the variant and testing its potential to overcome immunity, Horowitz said.
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Earlier, as he began the meeting, Bennett said the new variant was highly contagious and spread much more rapidly than the delta variant. "In the coming days our knowledge will expand very quickly, [and] we will know if the variant really breaks through immunity, at what speed, whether it's more fatal, how it affects children, and so on," he said.
After consultation with public health officials, Bennett instructed that the immediate halt to all flights to and from South Africa and neighboring countries be considered, but no decision has been announced.
On Thursday, Israel announced it had added South Africa to the list of "red" countries after the discovery of the new variant.
Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini were also added to the "red" list. Anyone coming from any of these countries who is not an Israeli citizen or resident will be barred entry.
Travelers returning from these countries will be ordered into a seven-day mandatory quarantine at a state-run facility, regardless of vaccination status, and will be released only after two negative PCR tests.
Meanwhile, the Health Ministry reported Friday 524 new coronavirus cases. In addition, there are 120 patients currently in severe condition. Of whom, 82 are in critical condition and 72 are on ventilators.
Israel's R number – the average number of people each COVID carrier infects – had passed 1 this week, which means the pandemic is once again expanding in the country.
“It’s not the booster waning, it’s the fact we still have unimmunized individuals,” Israel's top health expert Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis told Haaretz this week.
She explained that three-quarters of newly infected individuals have not been inoculated at all, while a further 15 percent are more than six months past their second dose and have yet to get a booster."
The European Union’s executive said Friday it wants to stop air travel from South Africa to counter the spread of the new variant.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement that she “proposes, in close coordination with the member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region.”
The U.K. announced that it was banning flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries effective at noon on Friday, and that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.
U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there were concerns the new variant “may be more transmissible” than the dominant delta strain, and “the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective” against it.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.