Previously unknown COVID-19 variant discovered in Israel

The variant is thought to be a combination of the Omicron BA.1 and BA.2 subvariants, the Health Ministry reported on Wednesday morning.

 SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 (illustrative). (photo credit: PIXABAY)
SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 (illustrative).
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

Two cases of a previously unknown coronavirus variant were discovered during routine PCR testing performed at Ben-Gurion airport for all passengers entering the country. Those infected with it are reported to be experiencing mild symptoms including fever, headaches and muscle pain, and did not require additional medical attention.

The Health Ministry has said that it is continuing to monitor the situation in the airport and will provide additional information as it becomes available. 

Following the announcement, Shamir Medical Center (Assaf Harofeh), where the PCR tests were sequenced, released a statement further clarifying the situation.

“Analysis of the data revealed a unique genetic signature that combines mutations originating in the BA.1 strain and... the BA.2 strain,” the medical center’s spokesperson said. 

“It is important to note that the variant’s detection is only possible through deep sequencing. The data was immediately transmitted to the Health Ministry and Central Virus Laboratory for verification.”

 Medical technicians test passengers for COVID-19 at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on March 8, 2021.  (credit: FLASH90) Medical technicians test passengers for COVID-19 at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on March 8, 2021. (credit: FLASH90)

While this variant has not yet been discovered anywhere else in the world so there is not much known about it, senior Hadassah Medical Center physician Prof. Dror Mevorach responded to the news with a reminder that “every two to three weeks there is a new variant.”

“As long as it does not make up a significant part of new infections, it will not be defined as a variant of concern and has little significance,” he said. 

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett held a meeting on Wednesday afternoon in light of the rising coronavirus infection rates in certain areas of the world including China and Hong Kong in particular. Also present at the meeting was Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and other senior health officials including Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash, COVID-19 Commissioner Salman Zarka, and the commander of the Home Front Command.

Israel’s current COVID-19 data was reviewed in comparison to the aforementioned countries, and the currently available data on both the BA.2 strain and the new combined strain were presented and discussed as well.

The meeting concluded that at present no new restrictions will be introduced, but the requirement to walk masks in closed public spaces will continue to be mandated and will be reviewed again closer to the Passover holiday.

Additionally, there will be continued efforts to inform the public of the importance of receiving all three vaccines where uptake is still low, and preparations will be made for the event of another wave, should it occur in the near future.