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New Omicron variant detected in Israel, Health Ministry says

Three cases of BA.2.75 subvariant confirmed so far in Israeli citizens returning from abroad; Israel’s Sheba Medical Center is in the trial-and-testing phase for new Moderna vaccine against latest variant

Magen David worker administers a COVID-19 rapid antigen test at a drive-thru complex in Jerusalem, June 20, 2022. (Photo: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

COVID cases are rising in Israel and, to make matters worse, a new unwelcome Omicron subvariant has landed, according to the Ministry of Health which confirmed three new cases of infection in Israeli travelers returning from abroad.

The BA.2.75 variant may potentially be “hypercontagious” and resistant to immunity from vaccines and previous infections. However, it is still unknown whether it is more dangerous than other Omicron mutations.

The new variant was first detected in India back in May. One of the infected Israeli travelers was returning from India, while the other two returned from France. 

As of May, Israel no longer requires incoming travelers to take PCR tests upon arrival, so it’s possible that more BA.2.75 cases are floating around the Jewish state than have been recorded.

Meanwhile, COVID cases are generally on the rise, including the number of people hospitalized in serious condition. According to data released by the Israeli Health Ministry, 8,524 people tested positive for COVID on Tuesday, with a positivity rate of more than 25%. In addition, there are currently 411 patients hospitalized in serious condition, down slightly from last week’s total of 434 – the highest number of severe cases in four months. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 11,208 people in Israel have died from the disease.

Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv announced on Monday that it is in the testing phase for a new Moderna vaccine to counter the Omicron variant. Sheba has been involved in pioneering research since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Director of the Infection Prevention and Control Unit at Sheba, Prof. Gili Regev-Yochay, said it is the hospital’s “professional duty to continue to lead global research in the field.”

“The whole world is still managing the coronavirus waves, and the significant challenge we face is to find vaccines and drugs that will address the various variants and enable safe life alongside the virus,” she said.

As Sheba’s leading vaccine researcher, Regev-Yochay explained that the study will divide volunteers into three groups: One group will receive two doses of the new vaccine; another will receive the new vaccine followed by a placebo; and the third will receive two doses of the original Moderna vaccine. Infection levels within groups will be assessed to gain further data on the effectiveness, durability and safety of the new Moderna vaccine.

“The Sheba Medical Center has been a pioneer in COVID-19 research throughout the pandemic, and we thank the clinical trial teams and the study participants for helping to advance our understanding of mRNA-1273.214,” said Paul Burton, Moderna’s chief medical officer.

Experts believe that a variant-proof COVID vaccine will be a game-changer for the pandemic. 

“This is really the future of the fight against the pandemic unfolding. It’s the start of regularly-updated vaccines responding to the emergence of new variants, and it’s good that Israel is playing a role,” said Epidemiologist Prof. Michael Edelstein of Bar Ilan University.

Pharmaceutical giants Moderna and Pfizer are currently in a race to produce updated vaccines against new variants of the coronavirus.

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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