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

Despite efforts to block its entry, it’s only a matter of time before the highly infectious new COVID-19 strain rampaging across parts of the UK reaches Israel, according to a top immunologist.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Saturday that the new strain could be “up to 70 percent more transmissible.”

Johnson imposed a “stay at home” order for London and southeast England to slow it, despite having promised to relax restrictions for Christmas.

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

“If the strain is really that effective [in spreading], at some point it will arrive here in Israel as well,” said immunologist Tomer Hertz of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “We won’t be able to stop it.”

A leading researcher on virus evolution, Adi Stern, is more optimistic that Israel may be able to keep the new variety of the virus at bay, but raised a concern that its emergence points to a danger that other strains could arise anywhere at any time that the virus is spreading. She warned that the new strain highlights the growing potential dangers of the virus if the population isn’t vaccinated quickly.

Both experts spoke to The Times of Israel on Sunday, as ministers decided to bar the entry of foreign citizens from countries with virus mutations. But while politicians are mulling completely stopping international flights, for now there will be air travel from such countries as Israeli nationals are allowed to return home.

Israelis arriving from the UK on Sunday were sent straight to a quarantine hotel, but passengers from other destinations weren’t checked to verify they hadn’t visited the UK.

Hertz said that “Israel may have avoided the new strain until now” if people arriving from the UK have been self-isolating as required by law. However, as the new strain reaches more people in the UK, cases are likely to slip through and end up spreading in Israel.

On the positive side, it’s unlikely that the new strain will harm the effectiveness of vaccines, which target numerous points on the virus, Hertz said, commenting: “There’s no reason to assume it won’t work, as the vaccines are very broad.”

Stern was more concerned than Hertz regarding the vaccine issue, but slightly more optimistic that Israel may be able to keep the new strain at bay, as well as regarding the contagion level, suggesting the estimate that it’s 70% more transmittable is an overstatement.

Talking to The Times of Israel from her Tel Aviv University lab, which sequences samples from patients to see how and when the virus is changing, Stern said she believes that the mutation happened in a single COVID-19 patient, probably one who also has cancer.

“Normally, we don’t see much evolution by this virus,” she explained. “However we see that people who are seriously immunocompromised sometimes don’t succeed in clearing the virus, typically cancer patients who are given antibodies [as a treatment], and this gives the virus an opportunity to evolve.”

The hypothesis that the new strain arose in an immunocompromised person has been proposed by British researchers, and Stern “can’t see another option regarding how it could have come about so quickly.”

This realization that one person could produce a strain with changed qualities “stresses the need for quick and widespread vaccination, far beyond ‘vulnerable populations,’” she added.

Israel’s inoculation drive started on Saturday night.

The novel coronavirus has generated thousands of known mutations, most of which have “zero effect” on its behavior, Stern said.

“But now what happened is a large number of mutations appeared at once, overnight, together, and unfortunately several of the mutations affect the spike protein, which is how the virus enters cells and also the point that vaccines target.”

In her analysis, “the main reason for concern is the possible impact on vaccines. Because there are so many mutations that affect the spike protein, which is the very point vaccines target, it might — and I stress might — make vaccines less effective.”

It won’t render vaccines useless, as they strike numerous targets on the virus, but it could “slightly” reduce efficacy, she added.

Stern believes that, statistically speaking, there is a high chance that the new strain hasn’t arrived in Israel, and commented that, under certain circumstances, “it is possible to keep it out.”

That will depend on travel restrictions or strong border controls, and strict adherence by any incoming travelers to quarantine rules, she said.

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

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

Source: TOI