Experts doubt that highly contagious new UK COVID can be kept away from Israel

Despite efforts to block its entry, it is only a matter of time before the highly infectious new COVID-19 strain raging in parts of the UK reaches Israel, according to a senior immunologist.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Saturday that the new strain could be “up to 70 percent more transmissible”. Johnson issued a stay home order for London and south east England to slow him down, despite promising to ease restrictions on Christmas.

In Israel, there are concerns that the sharp rise in COVID-19 cases due to the spread of the regular strain could be accelerated by the arrival of a contagious strain.

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“If the load is really that effective [in spreading]At some point it will also arrive here in Israel, ”said immunologist Tomer Hertz from Ben Gurion University in the Negev. “We won’t be able to stop it.”

A technician collects nasal swab samples for COVID-19 (Yossi Aloni / Flash90) in the coronavirus laboratory at Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on December 14, 2020.

A senior virus development researcher, Adi Stern, is more optimistic that Israel might be able to keep the new strain of the virus at bay, but expressed concern that its emergence points to the risk of other strains emerging anytime, anywhere The virus could spread. She warned that the new strain highlights the growing potential dangers of the virus if the population is not vaccinated quickly.

Both experts spoke to The Times of Israel on Sunday when ministers decided to ban the entry of foreign nationals from countries with virus mutations. But while politicians consider stopping international flights entirely, there will be air travel for now from countries where Israeli nationals are allowed to return home.

Israelis who arrived from the UK on Sunday were sent straight to a quarantine hotel, but passengers from other destinations were not screened to make sure they hadn’t visited the UK.

President Reuven Rivlin will be vaccinated against the coronavirus on December 20, 2020 at Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center in Jerusalem. (Mark Neyman / GPO)

Hertz said that “Israel may have avoided the new burden so far” if people traveling from the UK have self-isolated as required by law. However, as the new strain reaches more people in the UK, the cases are likely to go through and spread to Israel.

On the upside, the new strain will not affect the effectiveness of vaccines that target numerous points on the virus, Hertz said, commenting, “There’s no reason to think it won’t work as the vaccines are very broad. ”

Prof. Tomer Hertz (with kind permission of Tomer Hertz)

Stern was more concerned than Hertz about the vaccine problem, but a little more optimistic that Israel could keep the new tribe in check, as well as the level of contagion, suggesting that the estimate that it is 70% more communicable is an exaggeration is.

Stern spoke to The Times of Israel from their laboratory at Tel Aviv University, which is sequencing samples from patients to see how and when the virus changes. She believes the mutation occurred in a single COVID-19 patient, likely one who also has cancer.

“We don’t usually see much evolution from this virus,” she explained. “However, we see that people who are seriously immunocompromised are sometimes unable to clear the virus, typically cancer patients who are given antibodies [as a treatment]and this gives the virus the opportunity to evolve. “

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends a virtual press conference at 10 Downing Street in central London on December 19, 2020. (TOBY MELVILLE / POOL / AFP)

The hypothesis that the new strain originated in an immunocompromised person has been suggested by British researchers, and Stern “cannot see any other option how it could have originated so quickly”. That realization that a person could produce a strain with altered traits “emphasizes the need for rapid and widespread vaccination, well beyond” vulnerable populations, “she added.

Israel’s vaccination campaign began on Saturday evening.

The novel coronavirus has produced thousands of known mutations, most of which have no effect on its behavior, Stern said. “But now a large number of mutations have appeared at the same time overnight, and unfortunately, several of the mutations affect the spike protein. This is how the virus gets into the cells and also to the point where vaccines are targeted.”

Prof. Adi Stern from the School of Molecular Cell Biology and Biotechnology at Tel Aviv University (courtesy of Tel Aviv University)

In their analysis, “the main cause for concern is the potential impact on vaccines. Since there are so many mutations that affect the spike protein that is precisely the target of vaccines, this could – and I am stressing potentially – affect the effectiveness of vaccines. “

It won’t render vaccines unusable as they hit numerous targets for the virus, but it could “slightly” decrease effectiveness, she added.

Stern believes there is a statistically high probability that the new tribe did not arrive in Israel, commenting that under certain circumstances it is “possible to keep them out”.

This will depend on travel restrictions or strict border controls and strict adherence to quarantine rules by arriving travelers, she said.

“These things always involve luck, such as which people break the quarantine and when.”

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