Israel warns of looming emergency after its first case of omicron, new COVID-19 variant

Israel Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Friday that the country is “on the threshold of an emergency situation” after it detected its first case of omicron, the new South African strain of coronavirus.

The Israeli Health Ministry said it detected the new strain in a traveler who had returned from Malawi, and that it is investigating two other suspected cases, The Associated Press reported.

Bennett said the new variant is more contagious and spreads more rapidly than the delta variant. He added that authorities are still gathering data on how effective the coronavirus vaccines will be against the variant.

“We are currently at the threshold of an emergency situation,” he said, per the AP. “I ask everyone to be prepared and to fully join in the work around the clock.”

The ministry said the three cases were all in vaccinated individuals, though their inoculation details were still being verified, The Times of Israel said.

South African health officials confirmed at a media briefing Thursday the discovery of the new variant called B.1.1529, saying the variant is “very different” from past mutations from the virus. 

Israel banned travel from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini on Thursday after the variant was detected.
 
The Israeli military will also contact trace and get in touch with all individuals who have been to red countries within the past week and direct them to go into isolation while testing is carried out, AP reported.

Israel on Tuesday started vaccinating children ages 5-11 after the relevant health agencies approved the move earlier this month.

The country started its booster shots for the elderly in late July and in August began offering booster shots to fully vaccinated residents 12 years and older. Israeli health officials have said the booster was needed because the effectiveness of Pfizer’s second vaccine dose was declining over time.