Virus czar: With COVID-19 mutations, third lockdown may not be Israel’s last

The government’s coronavirus czar on Monday warned the third nationwide lockdown may not be Israel’s last, citing the fast-spreading mutations of the virus.

The British variant of the virus is circulating widely in Israel, accounting for nearly half of recent cases, according to health officials. Twenty-seven cases of the South African strain have been found in the country, in addition to four cases of a California mutation. Officials fear the variants might prove resistant to the vaccines.

Nachman Ash, in a briefing with reporters, also said the easing of the lockdown restrictions would be slower than anticipated, despite the country’s successful vaccination drive. The lockdown is currently set to expire on Sunday, though the government has yet to lay out a plan to gradually lift restrictions.

“When they asked me two weeks ago if this is the last lockdown, I replied that it nearly certainly is. Today I’m more cautious,” said Ash.

Israel’s coronavirus czar Prof. Nachman Ash visits Ziv hospital in Safed, December 24, 2020 (David Cohen/Flash90)

He said the more infectious British strain, and other strains originating in South Africa and California, “require us to use caution when exiting the lockdown.”

“We will be forced to reopen the economy more slowly than we thought a few weeks ago, and if we are successful, we will prevent the next lockdown,” Ash said.

He said the immense pressure on hospitals, which are struggling with an influx of COVID-19 patients in serious condition, complicates the planned reopening of the economy.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, meanwhile, slammed complacency in Israel regarding the pandemic, contradicting frequent recent remarks by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu implying the country is on its way out of the crisis.

“We will have to live in the shadow of the coronavirus for a long time,” he said in the Knesset plenum Monday, during a discussion of fine hikes for lockdown violations.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein receives a coronavirus vaccine at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, on December 19, 2020. (Amir Cohen/Pool/AFP)

“I have been taught not to lie, and I don’t want to tell you that in a month everything will be open, because that is not the case,” Edelstein said. “There is an atmosphere of ‘This is it, just one more push and it’s over.’ It must be truthfully said that is not the case.”

Israel will need to be “very careful” in exiting the lockdown, he added

Ash earlier on Monday told Radio 103FM that over the past couple of days information from the UK, where the so-called British variant was first detected, has indicated that the strain causes serious symptoms at a 30 percent higher rate. Ash said officials estimate some 40%-50% of new daily cases are caused by the British variant.

The British government has said there are preliminary indications the strain may cause 30% higher mortality.

On Monday, US biotechnology firm Moderna said lab studies show its COVID-19 vaccine will provide protection against the variants of the coronavirus first identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa.

“The study showed no significant impact” on the level of neutralizing antibodies elicited against the UK variant, B.1.1.7.

A medical worker prepares a COVID-19 vaccine at a Clalit vaccination center in Jerusalem, on January 21, 2021. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A sixfold reduction in antibody levels was observed with the B.1.351 variant first seen in South Africa, but the levels are thought to remain above what is required for protection against COVID-19.

Ash said there was also a very high probability that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine that Israel is using for its mass immunization drive also works on the British variant, but it is still not clear how effective it is against other variants. Israel is primarily using the Pfizer vaccine, though it also has a contract with Moderna.

In any case, Ash said, the vaccine should be expected to have at least some effectiveness against the mutations, even if it is not as high as its effectiveness against the more common strains.

The comments came as the country prepared to take drastic action to block virus mutations reaching the country from abroad, with the government deciding to shut down all commercial flights in and out of Ben Gurion Airport, Israel’s main international airport, until the end of the month.

International travelers have been identified as a prime source of infections in the country.

Illustrative — A man walks through the almost-empty Ben Gurion International Airport on January 24, 2021 (Flash90)

The closure will start at midnight Monday-Tuesday and remain in effect until Sunday, January 31, when national lockdown measures are currently set to be eased.

Under the current lockdown orders, all nonessential businesses are to be closed, as well as the entire education system, with the exception of special education institutions.

The Health Ministry is reportedly pushing for the lockdown to be extended in a partial format and that only preschools be permitted to reopen at the beginning of next month.

Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health at the Health Ministry, told the Knesset on Monday that the planned week-long closure of Ben Gurion Airport would not be long enough.

“The six days that we have decided to close Ben Gurion Airport for will not be enough. We will have to extend the closure by at least a few weeks to buy time for the vaccination campaign,” Alroy-Preis said.

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis. (Courtesy)

She also said that a higher-than-average share of cases in the ultra-Orthodox community was caused by the highly contagious British strain, and that although the mutation was not generally seen in Arab communities, it was expected to spread there too.

Additionally, the strain was causing concerning levels of infection in children and young people, as well as serious illness in a number of pregnant women.

She said that “40% of illness is in children, a higher percentage than their part in the population… We see a rise in infections in ages 6-9, which is exactly the age group that is supposed to go back to school” when the tightened lockdown ends at the end of the month. “We’re monitoring it.”

Alroy-Preis added that “the vaccine works against the British mutation but the virus infection rate is much faster than the vaccine rate.”

Meanwhile, “we are at a record number of people on ventilators, it’s unprecedented.”

The Health Ministry released figures Monday showing that 4,869 new virus cases were diagnosed the previous day and that the positive test rate had risen to 9.3%, its second-highest level in a month. With 18 deaths overnight, the toll stood at 4,437. Of the 70,859 active cases, 1,180 were in serious condition, with 416 considered critical and 369 on ventilators.

Over 1,000 people have died of COVID-19 since the beginning of January.

An Israeli student receives a COVID-19 vaccine injection, at a vaccination center in Tel Aviv, on January 23, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Edelstein, the health minister, reported Monday that the vaccination program was close to a rate of nearly 200,000 shots every day. Edelstein tweeted figures showing that 193,000 doses were administered on Sunday, a marked increase over the daily average of 170,000 shots for last week.

“Israel is continuing to lead the world with 3.7 million vaccinations (2.590 million got the first dose, and among them more than a million have also received the second dose) and we are opening the week with about 200,000 vaccination a day,” Edelstein tweeted.

“This is the way to beat the virus!” he said.

The government has set a goal of vaccinating the entire adult eligible population over the age of 16 by the end of March.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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