While COVID-19 surges, Israel has zero cases of influenza, RSV

Flu season in Israel usually starts in November.

Pre-filled M-001 universal flu vaccine syringes  (photo credit: BIONDVAX)
Pre-filled M-001 universal flu vaccine syringes
(photo credit: BIONDVAX)
There are zero cases of influenza or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in Israel, according to Dr. Galia Barkai, director of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Unit at Sheba Medical Center.
“It is not just that we have much less influenza, we don’t see it at all,” Barkai told The Jerusalem Post. “We have zero positive tests for influenza or RSV,” a virus that causes severe respiratory distress in infants and children.
Flu season in Israel usually starts in November.
“This is really, really special,” Barkai said. But she noted that it is also “understandable.”
“We know a major route of infection is people transmitting the virus to one another – breathing, coughing,” Barkai said. “Since we are wearing masks and have social-distancing measures, and people are staying in their homes now because of lockdown, so we have less interaction and less ways to get infected.”
Nonetheless, coronavirus has continued to spread throughout the country. On Thursday morning, the Health Ministry reported more than 8,000 new cases – 9% of those screened were positive. But Barkai said coronavirus is much more infectious than influenza. Also, flu is often spread between people moving from one country to another and travel has also decreased during the pandemic.
Barkai said that the same phenomenon is being seen around the world, though she could not confirm the number of cases of flu in any other countries. The World Health Organization, based on global surveillance data collected through late December, said that flu activity in the Northern Hemisphere is as low as in an ordinary summer.  Flu is a winter virus.
According to a report published this month by Science, US clinical labs have collected 925 positive influenza samples since the end of September 2020 until January, versus 63,975 at this point in the 2019–20 flu season.
The lack of flu patients has left beds free in the country’s internal medicine wards, which has allowed hospitals to decrease staff in those units and move them to coronavirus units without completely falling apart, Barkai said.
At Hadassah-University Medical Center, for example, there were already 500 influenza patients at the hospital by January 2020 – this time last year, according to the hospital’s spokesperson.
Barkai said the phenomenon has also potentially broken a paradigm within the medical community that children are the first and primary transmitters of the flu and RSV.
“Most people who wear masks and social distance are adults, yet we still don’t have the illness. Maybe adults start the transmission and not the children,” Barkai suggested, explaining that children are always inoculated against the virus first. “Maybe we were incorrect.”
She said “it will be interesting” to see if there is still less flu next year, when most of the world is vaccinated against COVID-19.
Barkai also suggested that one of the effects of COVID-19 could be that scientists work to develop a messenger RNA vaccine against influenza, which could be more effective. The standard flu vaccine is only around 50% effective. Pfizer’s mRNA coronavirus vaccine, for example, has been found to be 95% protective against the virus.
“A 90% effective flu vaccine would have a great impact on the world,” Barkai said.