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COVID: First signs that vaccine protects against Omicron – health minister

So far, Israel has registered four cases infected with the new variant, while general morbidity remains low.

 Scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, also known as novel coronavirus (photo credit: U.S. NIAID-RML/Handout via REUTERS)
Scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, also known as novel coronavirus
(photo credit: U.S. NIAID-RML/Handout via REUTERS)

There are indications that individuals fully vaccinated against corona within six months or with the booster are also protected against the Omicron variant, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said on Tuesday, after another two cases were identified, bringing the total to four.

“In the coming days we will have more accurate information about the efficacy of the vaccine against Omicron, but there is already room for optimism, and there are initial indications that those who are vaccinated with a vaccine still valid or with a booster will also be protected from this variant,” Horowitz said while visiting the Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba with Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman.

“The vaccine is really crucial right now,” said Horowitz. “Anyone who is exposed to the variant without a vaccine will put themselves at unnecessary risk.”

Later in the evening, a report by Channel 12 said the Pfizer vaccine is just slightly less effective in preventing infection with Omicron than with Delta – 90% as opposed to 95% – while it is as effective – around 93% – in preventing serious symptoms at least for those vaccinated with a booster.

According to the report, the ability of the variant to infect is higher than Delta but not as much as feared – around 1.3 times higher.

A passenger tries to find a flight as several airlines have stopped flying out of South Africa, amidst the spread of the new SARS-CoV-2 variant Omicron, at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, November 28, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/SUMAYA HISHAM)A passenger tries to find a flight as several airlines have stopped flying out of South Africa, amidst the spread of the new SARS-CoV-2 variant Omicron, at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, November 28, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/SUMAYA HISHAM)

At the same time, those not inoculated have a 2.4 times greater chance of developing serious symptoms, a significant figure.

A spokesperson for the Health Ministry said the ministry was not yet in possession of the data published by Channel 12.

Head of Public Health Services Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis said the first data about the efficacy of the corona vaccines against Omicron were expected to be shared with Israel by South Africa on Tuesday. However, the ministry had not yet received the information as of press time.

“The greatest concern for us is the very rapid spread of this variant in South Africa,” Alroy-Preis told the Knesset Foreign Affairs Committee, describing how the daily cases there rose from 200 cases to 2,000 cases in 10 days.

“From what we hear, those vaccinated do not have significant symptoms, it is a mild disease, but for now this is preliminary information,” she noted. “Today there will be the first data on the efficacy of the vaccine.”

Alroy-Preis explained the necessity of employing the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) tracking system to locate those who were in contact with individuals infected with the variant or suspected to be infected.

“The Shin Bet system is one of our tools to identify and interrupt the transmission chains,” she said. “The time it has bought for us is helping us to vaccinate the population and get our citizens to be in a more protected situation.”

As of Tuesday morning, the technology had been used to track the contacts of 13 people – two infected with Omicron and 11 possibly infected. Exactly 186 individuals were identified, 42 of whom are suspected of being infected.

In order to verify their situation, they need to undergo a corona test, and if found positive, the results need to undergo genetic sequencing to check whether they are carrying the variant or a different strain.

If the number of people to track goes up to a few hundred, Alroy-Preis noted, there won’t be a way to use the tracking technology anymore.

Two cardiologists from Sheba Medical Center were verified as infected with the Omicron variant, a spokesperson for the hospital confirmed. He said they were experiencing “very light symptoms.”

One of the doctors, in his mid 40s, brought the variant into Israel upon returning from a medical conference in London. He tested negative when he boarded the airplane from the United Kingdom to Israel and on arrival, but a few days later began experiencing symptoms.

Once he tested positive, his results were sequenced and on Tuesday he was confirmed positive for the variant.

Before entering isolation, the doctor had performed several cardiac catheterizations and attended at least two other large events. He was also in contact with the second cardiologist, in his 70s, who is now also infected with the variant.

Both doctors were fully vaccinated with three shots of the Pfizer corona vaccine.

The hospital spokesperson said that anyone the doctors were in contact with has been informed, but there are no additional suspicious cases at the medical center at this time nor news of any related outbreaks.

At Soroka, Horowitz said again that the situation in Israel is under control and there is no need to panic.

“We will not close the country and will maintain life as normal as possible,” he noted. “There is currently no intention to impose restrictions on life within Israel, and we will do everything possible to ensure that this continues.”

Horowitz also emphasized that the ban on foreign tourists is only temporary, and will not be automatically renewed.

In the meantime, the number of new cases in Israel remains stable.

Exactly 636 new virus carriers were identified on Monday. A week earlier they were 716. The total number of active cases on Tuesday stood at 5,600.

In addition, there were 117 patients in serious condition, the lowest since July.

Finally, the R rate measuring how many people each virus carrier infects slightly decreased on Tuesday, when it stood at 1.03.