As countries around the world brace for the possible impact of Omicron, a new variant of COVID-19 identified as “of concern” by the World Health Organization on November 26, health officials in Israel have signaled caution. “The coming few weeks will be filled with notions, personal impressions, partial data sets, and a lot of ambiguous data coming in,” said professor Ran Balicer, member of the Israeli National Expert Advisory Committee on COVID-19 response, at a recent web briefing. “Some will say that this is really a serious problem, and others will drive us the opposite way. We should maintain course until we know something that is data-driven.”
On Tuesday, The Jerusalem Post reported that the number of Omicron cases within Israel had risen from two to four, with the most recent being two cardiologists from Sheba Medical Center, one of whom appears to have been infected with the variant at a medical conference in London. Both are reportedly experiencing “very light symptoms.” There are no indications yet that Omicron is either more transmissible or more dangerous than the Delta variant, which currently predominates globally. (The first case of Omicron in the United States was reported on Wednesday.)
Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of Public Health Services in Israel, told the Knesset Foreign Affairs Committee that her greatest worry is “the very rapid spread of this variant in South Africa.” Daily cases there reportedly increased from 200 to 2,000 in ten days.
Israel is one of several countries that has closed its borders to foreign nationals and reinstituted quarantine measures for returning travelers. Balicer says that the restrictions will likely stay in place until officials have more clarity. “Right now we know that our colleagues in other countries are not able to fully track which of their population is currently carrying [Omicron],” said Balicer. Possible carriers of the new variant are being tracked within Israel by the Shin Bet, the internal security service, a move that has sparked some criticism. Given the emergency situation, Balicer said that he considers these measures to be “absolutely necessary at this point.”
Israel’s Channel 12 reported the existence of unconfirmed data suggesting that the Omicron variant is 1.3 times more infectious than the Delta variant, and that unvaccinated people are 2.3 times more likely to develop serious symptoms.
However, Israeli health minister Nitzan Horowitz has expressed hope. “In the coming days we will have more accurate information about the efficacy of the vaccine against Omicron, but there is already room for optimism,” said Horowitz while visiting the Soroka Medical Center. “There are initial indications that those who are vaccinated with a vaccine still valid or with a booster will also be protected from this variant.”
According to Our World in Data, 62.7 percent of Israel’s total population have received two doses of a COVID vaccine; 44.3 percent have received a booster. Significant disparities exist between Jewish and Arab Israelis. 29 percent of seriously ill COVID patients are Arab, more than their share of 21 percent of the population, and the Arab Emergency Committee has reported that only about 35 percent of eligible Arabs got their booster, compared to 73 percent of eligible non-Haredi Jewish Israelis and 56 percent of Haredi Israelis.