Two Cases of Unidentified COVID Variant Discovered in Israel

Two Israelis who returned to Israel from abroad were found to be carrying a combination of omicron and the infectious BA.2 variant of coronavirus, which has not been sequenced elsewhere in the world

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Travelers enter and exit the COVID testing area at Ben-Gurion Airport, in November.
Travelers enter and exit the COVID testing area at Ben-Gurion Airport, in November.Credit: Emil Salman
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Two people in Israel who returned from abroad were found to be carrying a previously unidentified COVID variant, the Health Ministry said on Wednesday morning. The virus is a combination of the BA.1 (omicron) and infectious BA.2 variants.

The two patients tested positive after undergoing a PCR test upon landing at Ben-Gurion International airport, and their samples were sequenced in Israel. According to the Health Ministry, the patients had light symptoms, including fever, headaches and muscle aches, and did not require specialized medical care.

Israel's COVID czar, Prof. Salman Zarka, told Army Radio that the patients are a couple in their 30s who contracted the virus from their infant son.

He said that two viruses linking up, particularly when both are contracted, is a common phenomenon. He explained that this occurs when there are two viruses in the same cell, and that "when they multiply, they exchange genetic material, creating a new virus."

Omicron infections have been falling in the past week in favor of rising BA.2 infections, and Health Ministry officials are concerned about the spread.  "We are still seeing a continued decrease in the number of infections in all groups and ages, but the infection rate has begun to rise in the past week," Zarka said on Tuesday.

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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and senior health officials on Wednesday in light of a global surge in COVID cases. Bennett ordered to continue Israel's mask policy in closed spaces and reconsider its necessity before the Passover holiday. The prime minister also said Israel should maintain vaccine supplies in the case of a dangerous variant, and encouraged the public to get vaccinated with three doses.

The R number, or the number of people each coronavirus carrier infects, remains below 1, but has been steadily rising. The number, which is calculated from data from the previous 10 days, hit 0.9 on Wednesday, the highest since January. Any R number over 1 means the virus is spreading.

On Tuesday, 6,310 people tested positive for COVID in Israel, and 10.9 percent of tests came back positive. There are currently 335 patients in serious condition, of whom 169 are in critical condition and 151 are on respirators.

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