Four cases of new COVID-19 mutation found in Israel, Health Ministry says

"Until a few minutes ago, we were optimistic," Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said.

The word "COVID-19" is reflected in a drop on a syringe needle in this illustration taken November 9, 2020.  (photo credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION/FILE PHOTO)
The word "COVID-19" is reflected in a drop on a syringe needle in this illustration taken November 9, 2020.
Four cases of the new coronavirus mutation recently found in the United Kingdom have been discovered in Israel, the Health Ministry said on Wednesday.
The four cases were found among passengers who returned from England in recent days, and they are isolating at home, the ministry said. Two of the cases are in minors, one is a person who has medical reasons for being unable to isolate in a state-run corona hotel and the fourth returned to Israel from England before hotel isolation was required.
A Health Ministry statement said that each case was being monitored and that the public would be updated accordingly.
“In the last two days we have been making a concerted effort to check that the mutation from the UK has not infiltrated [Israel],” Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said during a cabinet meeting at which ministers discussed a closure to stop the spread of the virus. “Until a few minutes ago, we were optimistic. But now we are less optimistic. This information came in a few minutes ago from our labs.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the government’s quick decision to close the skies when he heard about the mutation variant cases.
“It is clear that we took the right steps when we closed the skies from Britain and the rest of the world,” he said. “It is clear that we acted correctly when we required Israelis to quarantine in designated hotels. It is clear that we took the right steps when we sought to locate people who were in England and the other infected countries.
“Nevertheless, at the moment, we must assume that the virus is spreading here,” he continued. “The good news is that the assessments of the companies that are supplying us with vaccines are that there is a high – but not absolute – likelihood that these vaccines will deal with the mutation as well. We will know this in a few days; we have no guarantee that this will be the case. We need to wait in order to know this.”
He added that this new information only “strengthens” the government’s outline to move forward quickly with vaccination while locking down in an effort to contain the virus.
“This strengthens what we are discussing here at the moment, to move forward very quickly with our vaccines operation which, at the moment, is among the fastest in the world relative to population, and at the same time, limit the spread of the disease, both of the previous virus and the mutation,” he said. “These two things need to be done in tandem: A very rapid vaccine operation and restrictions. If we do this, we will be the first country in the world to emerge from the pandemic.”
The mutation of the virus that was first identified in the UK, South Africa and Denmark, is thought to be 70% more infectious than the previous strain.
Earlier this week, Health Ministry director-general Chezy Levy told Ynet that he believed the mutation was already in Israel: “The mutation has not only stayed in England but spread around the world, and it can certainly have come with passengers that came to Israel.”
On Tuesday, his deputy, Prof. Itamar Grotto, said that the British mutation may be responsible for the increase in morbidity among the ultra-Orthodox community. The head of Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Prof. Jonathan Halevy, told 103FM that he would not be surprised if the mutation was responsible for the country’s third wave.
The discovery of the mutation in Israel came at about the same time as British Health Secretary Matt Hancock told his country that a new, potentially more infectious variant of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has been found in Britain in cases linked to South Africa.
South Africa’s health department said last week that a new genetic mutation of the virus had been discovered and might be responsible for a recent surge in infections there.
“So, the new variant in the UK, which we’ve identified, is very different to the variant in South Africa, it’s got different mutations,” said Susan Hopkins from Public Health England.
“Both of them look like they’re more transmissible,” she continued. “We have more evidence on the transmission for the UK variant because we’ve been studying that with great detail with academic partners. We’re still learning about the South African variant.”
Immediate restrictions were being imposed on travel from South Africa, Hancock said.
Reuters contributed to this report.