Israel raises 'red flag' after finding new Covid strain

·3-min read
A lab technician holds a tube containing a swab sample taken for Covid-19 serological test at the Leumit Health Services laboratory in the Israeli city of Or Yehuda in this file picture taken on July 16, 2020 (AFP/JACK GUEZ)

Israel said Friday it was raising a "red flag" and imposing a series of emergency measures to protect its heavily vaccinated population after identifying a case of the new Covid-19 variant.

The health ministry said the new strain that was first detected by South Africa -- known as B.1.1.529 -- was discovered in a person who had arrived from Malawi.

Two more suspected cases have been detected in people returning from abroad, it said, adding that all three, who had been vaccinated, were placed in quarantine. The government later announced another suspected case.

Scientists in South Africa said on Thursday that they had detected the new B.1.1.529 variant with at least 10 mutations, compared with two for Delta or three for Beta.

The strain was of "serious concern" and had been blamed for a surge in infections, the authorities in South Africa said.

It has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong among travellers from South Africa, as well as in Belgium.

Israel was one of the first countries to launch vaccines against the coronavirus last year, thanks to a deal with Pfizer that gave it access to millions of doses in exchange for data on the vaccine's efficacy.

Its initial vaccine rollout of the Pfizer-BioNTech jab was among the world's fastest, and more than 5.7 million of the country's nine million people are now fully vaccinated.

- 'Must act quickly' -

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called a meeting on Friday with public health officials and ministers to take stock of the Covid-19 situation in the country.

The new variant "is concerning and has the potential to be very dangerous. We are raising a red flag," Bennett said later at a news conference.

In response, he said, Israel would order 10 million PCR test kits.

"All African countries... with the exception of North Africa are red-listed, and all Israelis returning from these countries must adhere to a scrupulous quarantine," including those who arrived in the past two weeks, he added.

Israel had already late Thursday placed the southern African nations of Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe on its "red list" because of the discovery of the variant.

"We are close to an emergency situation... we must act strongly and quickly," Bennett said in a statement from his office.

The World Health Organization is due to hold a meeting Friday to decide if the new strain should be designated a variant of "interest" or of "concern".

Over the summer, Israel experienced an upsurge in coronavirus infections, fuelled by the Delta variant, and launched one of the earliest campaigns for booster shots.

On Tuesday, it rolled out Covid-19 vaccinations for children aged five to 11, one of only a handful of countries to inoculate minors that young, as it seeks to stem another pandemic wave.

Earlier this month, Israel held a "war game drill" in case of an outbreak of a new lethal variant of Covid-19.

The simulation covered different aspects of a crisis, including mass inoculation, ordering curfews and imposing a flight ban.

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