Israel Fears South African COVID Strain Spreading Beyond Control

Closing Israel's borders did not stop this coronavirus strain from entering: Dozens are being infected each day. Israel vaccine data shows it's the only variant with less inoculation effectiveness

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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People walking on a street in Tel Aviv, this week.
People walking on a street in Tel Aviv, this week.Credit: Hadas Parush
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Israeli efforts to stop the spread of the South African variant of the coronavirus, which included the shut down of Ben-Gurion International Airport last month, have brought little results, data shows.

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Over 450 cases of the infection have been diagnosed so far in Israel, and health professionals estimate that dozens more are being infected each day.

Read more: 'When will it end?': How a changing virus is reshaping scientists' views on COVID-19

The Health Ministry’s committees on vaccinations and the pandemic said two weeks ago that the variant was spreading beyond control.

A vaccination center in Jadeidi-Makr, in northern Israel, yesterday.Credit: Rami Shllush

The focus on variants was supposed to prevent a scenario in which Israel would be forced to deal with a more infectious and virulent strain of the coronavirus that would turn out to be less sensitive to the Pfizer vaccine. But ministry experts had cautioned that shutting the airport woult not prevent the strain from reaching the country.

Israel had already missed out on stopping the entry of the British variant, which is responsible for 90 percent of newly confirmed COVID-19 cases. Now the South African variant has been identified in hundreds of patients despite airport measures and isolating passengers in hotels.

Dozens of cases of the South African variant were discovered in random testing which means they could not be traced directly to contact with a person who brought the virus in from overseas.

At the same time, reports have recently shown that other variants have also reached Israel, including the variant from California discovered in random testing in one case; three cases of the New York strain; and one case of a variant from Uganda.

Coronavirus testing at Ben-Gurion International Airport, on Tuesday.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

The spread of these variants has raised a number of important questions: How much is the fear of these variants justified and how important is it to stop them? Is there any practical way to prevent or significantly reduce their presence and spread? And how effective are the vaccines in fighting them?

When the first cases of the British variant were identified in December, it was only a matter of weeks before its effect and spread were felt. January was the worst month since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis by any measure, with record highs of over 1,000 deaths and over 1,200 patients in serious condition – including pregnant women hospitalized in serious condition. Doctors in coronavirus wards and intensive care units reported that their patients were in a more serious and complicated condition. They said the disease was more severe and virulent and caused a faster deterioration, including among younger people.

The Pfizer vaccine has been found to be effective against the British variant, but experts fear that other variants may be less susceptible to these vaccines.The South African variant is the only one so far to have been linked to a lower effectiveness of the jab; it has also caused reinfection among those recovering from COVID-19. It is worrying experts because of the mutations in its protein wrapper, which the virus uses to bind to cells. These changes make it the most distant variant from the original coronavirus – the one that the vaccines were developed for.

Officials express their concerns and voice disagreements as how to fight the variant viruses. A meeting on February 18 was devoted mostly to discussing the South African variant. The data presented showed an increased presence of the variant among the Arab community, and in particular in the Triangle region in the center of the country – as well as in Arabeh, Sahknin, Yarka and Bet Jann in the north.

Coronavirus testing in Taibeh, today.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Shmuel Ohayon, who is responsible for the matter in the ministry’s information center on the disease, said the South African variant has spread widely in Taibeh in the Triangle region. “Most of the infections have spread within the family, in social gatherings and random meetings.”

“Over 20 percent of newly confirmed cases of residents of Taibeh are carriers of the variant,” and every day dozens more are being infected, Ohayon said. He said this meant that hundreds of carriers of the variant are in Israel, and the situation has “gotten out of control and we need to think epidemiologically how to handle it, and whether it is still possible at this stage.”

The South African variant has reached Israsel mainly via the United Arab Emirates, as well as from South Africa, Tanzania, Turkey, Tajikistan and France. 

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