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December 22, 2020 10:20 am

Concerned Over New COVID-19 Strain, Israel Shuts Skies to Non-Nationals

avatar by Israel Hayom / JNS.org

Passengers wearing masks push trolleys at Ben-Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, Israel, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, May 14, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun.

JNS.org – Israel on Monday decided to ban entry to all non-citizens and require returning nationals to quarantine in special facilities, over concerns regarding a new COVID-19 strain detected in the United Kingdom in recent days. The measure will enter into effect on Wednesday afternoon.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had called Monday’s meeting of the country’s Coronavirus Cabinet “for one purpose, and that is to close the skies. Since last night’s meeting, the mutation has been spreading in many countries and it is clear to us that we are at the beginning of a very rapid spread” of the disease.

Following a six-hour meeting of the Cabinet on Sunday, Netanyahu said officials were weighing a general lockdown to stop the spread of the virus. He said a new, mutated strain of the virus discovered in Britain would impact the Cabinet’s next steps. Health Ministry Director Hezi Levi said he did not believe the new strain was more dangerous than the known one, and that it would respond to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

“In South East England, a virus with a different structure that has undergone a number of mutations was discovered, and it’s worrying. This virus has been found to be 60-70 percent more contagious than the one known to us, but it is not more violent. The disease is the same disease with the same process with the same non-violent course of action compared to the virus we know,” he said, adding that the new strain was not likely to be immune to the vaccine.

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“A majority of scientists involved in researching the mutation say the virus will probably not be immune to a vaccine that contains some proteins that give rise to antibodies in the body of an inoculated individual. The way things look now, the mutant virus will not be immune to vaccines,” he said.

According to Levi, molecular lab tests carried out in Israel can identify the mutant strain because they check a few segments: “It has been said that the virus ‘slips under the radar’ and that PCR tests [that detect RNA specific to the COVID-19 virus] don’t recognize it. In Israel, we examine a few segments and that’s why that won’t happen in the State of Israel, and the virus won’t slip under the radar.”

The Health Ministry has ordered genetic sequencing of Israelis returning from Britain and other countries and those in quarantine found to be carrying the virus in order ascertain whether they are carrying a new strain.

The day after the British government revealed the new strain had been discovered and declared a lockdown on London, the United Kingdom recorded a significant increase in the number of daily infections. On Sunday, the United Kingdom recorded 36,000 new cases, double the amount recorded just one week prior and the highest number of new daily cases since the outbreak of the pandemic. British Health Minister Matt Hancock said the outbreak of the new strain was “out of control” and called on British citizens to behave as if they knew they had contracted the virus and enter into quarantine.

According to Hancock, the lockdown could go on for months. The British government called on those residents of areas under lockdown not to leave their homes except for emergency purposes. The lockdown in Wales has been tightened and Scotland and Northern Ireland were both set to see further restrictions following the Christmas holiday. The new strain of the virus was detected in tests carried out during the month of September and identified in October. Another mutated strain was identified in South Africa.

Following the announcement, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Australia and Ireland announced a ban on incoming flights from Britain. France was set to join the European flight ban. The Spanish government asked the European Union to consolidate a mandatory pan-European position on a flight ban to the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, on Monday, Israelis aged 60 and over arrived at medical clinics across the country to receive their first coronavirus vaccine shots. According to Israeli Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, tens of thousands of health-care workers were inoculated on Sunday, and about 200,000 Israelis had made appointments to receive the vaccine.

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