The Health Ministry instructed hospitals in Israel to begin conducting PCR tests on new patients for the next week due to a recent rise in novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) cases on Monday The decision was made to allow health officials to more effectively track the infection rates as most of the cases in Israel are being tested with home tests or non-lab tests.
Last week, 136 new cases were reported on average each day, compared to 104 new cases each day two weeks earlier, according to data from the Health Ministry. Meanwhile, the number of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 decreased in recent days, with 42 patients in serious condition and 20 in moderate condition as of Sunday.
Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash said that the new variant could have originated in Israel. “It’s likely that they were infected before boarding the flight in Israel. The variant could have emerged here,” he told 103FM radio on Wednesday morning. “We don’t know what it means yet.”
BA.2.86 variant detected in Israel and abroad
The increase in cases comes as health officials across the world track the spread of the BA.2.86 variant (colloquially referred to as “Pirola”) of the coronavirus. Samson Assuta Ashdod University Hospital announced on Monday that BA.2.86 accounted for over 16% of cases in Israel as of Sunday night based on Health Ministry data.
The variant has dozens of mutations, with initial studies finding that BA.2.86 is able to evade much of the immunity provided by previous infections and vaccinations, but has a harder time spreading between people. Immunologist Yunlong Richard Cao reported that experiments examining how the virus interacts with various antibodies found that it could avoid antibodies provided by older variants, including the more prevalent XBB.1.5 variant. XBB.1.5 is being used as the basis for a new coronavirus vaccine booster set to be used this fall.
Cao noted that the experiments also found that BA.2.86 is less infective than than XBB.1.5 and EG.5 variants, due to a number of mutations it contains. “In sum, we found that BA.2.86 is antigenically distinct from XBB.1.5 and can escape XBB-induced neutralizing antibodies,” wrote Cao. “The updated vaccine’s efficacy against BA.2.86 should be closely monitored; however, BA.2.86 may not prevail very fast due to its lower infectivity.”
A different study of immunity by a team led by researchers Ben Murrell and Daniel Sheward found that blood samples from before and after the emergence of XBB variant found that the samples from after XBB were “substantially better” at neutralizing BA.2.86.
Scientists have noted that, so far at least, there are no signs that the illness caused by BA.2.86 is any more severe than other recent variants. The variant also does not appear to be spreading quickly, although some researchers have stressed that it could take longer for it to reach its peak infection rate. Molecular virologist Marc Johnson noted that Delta also spread slowly before hitting “critical mass” and spreading quickly across the globe.
Israel continues vaccination campaign and booster shots
Despite the rise in cases and the emergence of new variants, Israel continues to lead the world in vaccination rates and booster shots. According to Health Ministry data, over 6 million people have received at least one dose of the vaccine, over 5 million have received two doses, and over 4 million have received three doses.
The Health Ministry said Saturday that coronavirus vaccines were “dramatically” effective and the latest data shows the shots were 98.9% effective at preventing death caused by COVID-19. The data also showed that the vaccines were 95% effective at preventing serious illness, 91% effective at preventing symptomatic illness, and 89% effective at preventing infection.
Health officials have urged eligible Israelis to get vaccinated as soon as possible and to adhere to the green pass system that allows entry to certain venues only for those who are vaccinated, recovered or test negative. They have also recommended wearing masks indoors and avoiding large gatherings.
COVID czar Salman Zarka said that Israel was prepared for any scenario and had enough vaccines and tests for everyone. He added that he was not concerned about the new variant leading to serious cases at this point. “A young woman infected a baby and both of her parents,” he said, referring to the two cases of the new variant detected in Israel. “The phenomenon of combined variants is well known. At this point, we’re not concerned about [the new variant leading to] serious cases.”