Israel on brink of state of emergency as new coronavirus variant reported in country

NETANYA, ISRAEL - NOVEMBER 23: Israeli child Almog Taub, 6, sits on her mother Sagit Taub's knee as she recieves a Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine from a Meuhedet health provider worker on November 23, 2021 in Netanya, Israel. People aged 12 and up in Israel are already eligible for the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and a follow-up booster.  (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)
Israel has had a successful booster programme. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Israel has warned it is on the verge of declaring a state of emergency amid fears of a new coronavirus threat that experts have warned could be the most worrying strain to emerge yet.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett Bennett said a few cases had been reported in Israel, including at least person who had already received a vaccine booster shot.

"That doesn't mean the vaccines are no good (against the new variant). It might mean they are effective to a certain degree," said Bennett

He added: “We are currently on the verge of a state of emergency. Our main principle is to act fast, strong and now.”

There has been one confirmed case in a traveller from Malawi, and two further suspected cases, which have been put into isolation.

Israel on Friday imposed a travel ban on most African states, widening a ban announced on Thursday on the entry of foreigners from seven African countries and travel to them.

The UK has also banned travellers from six countries from entering the country, unless they are a UK or Irish resident. The EU is set to follow suit.

Read more New Covid variant: How worried should we be?

The variant - called B.1.1.529 - 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.

Israel has recorded 1.3 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 8,000 dead since the pandemic began.

Cases of the new variant have been detected in South Africa, Botswana, Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong (Yahoo News UK/Flourish)
Cases of the new variant have been detected in South Africa, Botswana, Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong (Yahoo News UK/Flourish)

Its vaccine rollout programme has been one of the most successful in the world with around 57% of the population of 9.4 million already fully vaccinated, according to the Health Ministry.

43.75% of the population has had a booster, according to the Our World In Data site.

A fourth wave of infections that hit Israel in June began subsiding in September. But over the past two weeks the "R", or reproduction rate of the virus, that had remained below one for two months, began climbing and has now crossed that threshold, indicating the virus could again be spreading exponentially.

Bennett told journalists a national lockdown was not an option at the moment, though Israel's coronavirus panel of experts would reconvene on Saturday night to discuss possible additional measures.

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Why are experts so worried?

South African scientists say early signs from diagnostic laboratories suggest it has spread rapidly in Gauteng and may already be present in the country's other eight provinces.

The country's daily infection rate nearly doubled on Thursday to 2,465. The South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) did not attribute the resurgence to the new variant, though local scientists suspect it is the cause.

Botswana detected four cases, all foreigners who arrived on a diplomatic mission and have since left the country.

Hong Kong has one case, in a traveller from South Africa. Belgium became the first European country to confirm a case on Friday afternoon.

All viruses - including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 - change over time. Most changes have little or no impact on their properties.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 26: International passengers walk through the arrivals area at Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport on November 26, 2021 in London, England. A heavily-mutated new variant of the Covid-19 virus, currently called B.1.1.529, has been detected in South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong. The U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid said from 12:00 GMT on Friday all flights from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini are being suspended and the countries added to the UK's travel Red List. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
The UK and Israel are among those to place travel restrictions on six southern African countries including South Africa. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

However, some changes may affect how easily they spread, the their severity or the performance of vaccines against them.

This one has drawn scrutiny because it has more than 30 mutations of the spike protein that viruses use to get into human cells, UK health officials say.

That is about double the number of Delta, and makes this variant substantially different from the original coronavirus that current COVID vaccines were designed to counteract.

UK Health Security Agency Chief Medical Advisor Dr Susan Hopkins told BBC radio some mutations had not been seen before, so it was not known how they would interact with the other ones, making it the most complex variant seen so far.

So more tests will be needed to confirm if it's more transmissible, infectious or can evade vaccines.

The work will take a few weeks, the World Health Organization's technical lead on COVID-19, Maria van Kerkhove, said on Thursday. In the meantime, vaccines remain a critical tool to contain the virus.