In Israel, ‘COVID-19 could return in the winter’

Seven cases of highly infectious Indian variant detected in Israel

Israelis are seen boarding the light rail on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem after the coronavirus lockdown ends, on February 8, 2021. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Israelis are seen boarding the light rail on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem after the coronavirus lockdown ends, on February 8, 2021.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The COVID-19 pandemic could resurface in Israel again as early as this winter, former Health Ministry deputy director-general Itamar Grotto told The Jerusalem Post on Friday.
“We just finished the first year of coronavirus and we don’t know if it is coming back,” he said, noting that health officials expect a resurgence of the virus in the Southern Hemisphere where winter runs from June through August and cases have already been climbing. “This is not unrealistic at all.”
Grotto stepped down from his role at the Health Ministry last month, after having worked at the ministry for 13 years.
He explained that while flu season generally peaks around February and is considered a winter disease, cases of flu can already be diagnosed in the summer. Likewise, the four most common coronaviruses known to infect humans are highly seasonal, with most cases peaking in winter months.
“We thought at first that COVID would be seasonal. It is very difficult to determine seasonality in the first year,” Grotto said.
He noted that if the COVID-19 virus would return each winter, then the country would have to take some pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical measures, ranging from a booster shot of the vaccine to wearing masks.
Pfizer CEO Dr. Albert Bourla told CVS Health last week that it is a “likely scenario” that people will require an annual booster shot of the vaccine.
Grotto explained that the need for a booster shot is based on whether or not the virus mutates, meaning it changes in some way that would enable it to break through the immunity provided by the vaccine in its current form.
He reiterated that the current vaccine is effective against the British variant and likely even effective enough against the South African and Brazilian mutations. But “could there be a new variant that will be able to overcome the vaccine? For sure that is a possibility, and we have to take this into account,” he said.

ON FRIDAY, the Health Ministry announced that seven cases of an Indian variant had been identified in the country. They were discovered through the ministry’s genetic sequencing protocol that screens all viral samples of people who test positive on their return from abroad.
The people who caught the variant were unvaccinated. As such, the ministry used the opportunity to reiterate the importance of all unvaccinated returnees to enter isolation.
Speaking about the variant during an interview with N12 over the weekend, coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash said that “we do not know much about this mutation, but there are some bad signs. We are comparing the findings in the genetic sequencing to what we know, and it has a number of indications that it may be resistant to the vaccine.”
He said that health officials believe the variant has the capacity to infect widely after seeing how hundreds of thousands of people were quickly infected in southern India, where cases have surged to a record of more than 200,000 a day for several days.
The variant was classified last week as B.1.617.
Additionally, Grotto said, it could be that the efficacy of the vaccine will wane and there will therefore be a need for a new vaccination campaign.
If neither of these things happen – “if there is no significant variant and if lab tests will show the vaccine still offers protection against the virus – there will be no need for a third dose,” he said.
Will Israel have vaccines if necessary, given the government’s delay in signing contracts to secure another more than 30 million doses from Pfizer?
Grotto said he is not sure that Israel needs so many doses. He cautioned that while the argument over the vaccines has been played as a solely political one between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, “there is also some professional discussion. We are not sure we need to buy another two doses of the vaccine for the entire Israeli population. There are some who estimate that this amount is too high.”
He added that if the US Food and Drug Administration offers approval for children between 12 and 15 to vaccinate, then Israel should do the same. But he said that unlike the “paternalistic approach with adults – which was good – for children this is not necessary.
“The vaccine should be available for children,” Grotto continued, “but maybe we should not even make the green passport something mandatory for children, and certainly their returning to school should not be contingent on vaccination. The physician and the parents should decide.”
The country’s infection rate has continued to decline in the past month, with less than 100 people being diagnosed with coronavirus on Thursday, the Health Ministry reported Friday. As such, on Sunday, classrooms will open in full, and the public will no longer be required to wear masks when outdoors.
Nonetheless, Ash stressed in his interview with N12 that Israel has still not achieved herd immunity.
“We are about five million vaccinated and another million recovering: It is not enough. We need to reach about 75% vaccinated or recovered,” he said.
“There is still a lot of work and a ways to go,” Ash warned. “We have a lot of things to plan; to think ahead.”