Israel Kicks Off COVID Antibody Testing of 1.4 Million Children

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Antibody testing in the ultra-Orthodox town of Elad, northeast of Tel Aviv, two weeks ago.
Antibody testing in the ultra-Orthodox town of Elad, northeast of Tel Aviv, two weeks ago. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

A national antibody survey among 3- to 12-year-olds is slated to kick off on Sunday in municipalities around the country, in a bid to measure the extent to which the coronavirus spread undetected among the country’s children over the past year and a half.

The survey is a joint project of the Health Ministry, the Education Ministry and the IDF Home Front Command, with assistance from local authorities and educational institutions. Some 1,400 Home Front Command teams will conduct blood tests at locations around the country, in a bid to reach as many of Israel’s 1.4 million children as possible.

>> U.S. prepares for COVID booster shots: What it can learn from Israel

The test is conducted via a finger prick, and provides results within 15 minutes.

Unlike previous antibody surveys, which were conducted to learn about asymptomatic infections within crowded communities, this one is supposed to have a concrete and immediate impact on those tested.

Antibody test administered in ultra-Orthodox city of Elad, two weeks ago. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The assumption is that many children were infected over the past year and a half but showed no symptoms, and therefore were never diagnosed.

Israel’s authorities hope that a significant proportion of children ages 3-12, who are not currently eligible for vaccination, will be found to have antibodies and will thus be eligible for a Green Pass, exempting them from mandatory isolation should they be exposed to someone COVID-positive, and from COVID-19 testing which is now mandatory in order to enter sites and attractions. They will be able to maintain their daily routine, including attending school, and will reduce the burden on the education and healthcare systems.

According to data published by the Health Ministry, the number of serious cases increased by 45 and now stands at 666, including 150 in critical condition and 104 on ventilators.

On Saturday, 1,467 new cases were recorded, with a positive test rate of 5.11 percent. The COVID-19 infection rate known as the R number – the average number of people each coronavirus carrier infects – dropped to 1.2 and eight people have died from the virus over the weekend.

The booster shot campaign is picking up speed as people over 40 are now eligible to get the jab. As of now, over 1.3 million people have received the third dose of the vaccine.

Last week, a pilot survey began in 10 municipalities and neighborhoods with an ultra-Orthodox majority. A sample of about 35,000 tests revealed that about 20 percent of the children had COVID-19 antibodies. Many experts believe that the latent infection rate is higher among the ultra-Orthodox population than among Israel’s population at large, because the former generally live in more crowded conditions and have on average many more children per family. In addition, parts of the ultra-Orthodox community flouted disease control guidelines during previous outbreaks, and they still have lower vaccination rates than the general public.

However, an expert involved in the survey says he believes the results will be more dramatic than expected. “I believe the test will show that the number of children who were infected in Israel over the past year and a half is about double what we thought,” he tells Haaretz. Last week’s survey among Haredi children is not an accurate representation of the asymptomatic infection rate, which is likely higher than the survey revealed, he says.

Children getting tested for COVID in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.Credit: Hadas Parush

“The survey of the Haredim was a sample of convenience [meaning, not a statistically representative sample, but rather one that included the closest, most available participants]. We do not know who was tested, or why. In a serological test conducted in Bnei Brak last August, for every child who was diagnosed, there were 2.5 children we did not know about. If most of the Haredim are tested, we will have a better understanding of the situation. The most important part of the current survey is to calculate the latent infection rate and how many children are protected from infection,” he says.

Expectations for the antibody survey are extremely high – partly due its unprecedented scope and partly because of how much time has passed since the pandemic began. Israel performed antibody surveys in the past for research purposes and to better understand the pandemic’s behavior. At the time, there were no rapid tests or broad sampling infrastructure.

“The broad antibody survey is necessary and might bring practical results that can reduce the number of quarantines and prevent classroom closure,” said Prof. Lital Keinan-Boker, head of the Israel Center for Disease Control. “As part of our pandemic management, it’s important that we conduct small-scale antibody surveys occasionally so that we have a clear picture of where we stand.” Smaller surveys also help prepare for larger ones like the one being launched now, she said.

Many parents and children are curious to know whether they were infected with COVID-19 over the last 18 months, which would exempt them from the disease-control measures imposed on the unvaccinated. Authorities hope this will motivate parents to have their children be tested.

Home Front Command hopes the survey will be conducted broadly and quickly. It seeks to have as many three-people teams as possible on the ground on Sunday, ultimately ramping up to 1,400 nationwide.

Announcements about survey sites and times have already gone out to families around the country.

Third vaccine dose

Meanwhile, Israel’s campaign to administer COVID-19 booster shots was expanded over the weekend to people aged 40 and up. Clalit, Israel’s largest HMO, reported that some 31,000 people aged 40 to 49 received their third dose of the coronavirus vaccine, and another 30,000 people booked appointments.

Some 700,000 Clalit members have received the third vaccine dose since Israel launched its booster shot campaign on August 1.

Maccabi, Israel’s second-largest HMO, reported some 24,000 people were vaccinated over the weekend, or more than 10 percent of the target population. Another 70,000 people booked appointments, or 30 percent of the HMO’s members between the ages of 40 and 49.

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