The Health Ministry confirmed 14 more cases of the South African variant, bringing the total to 44, with 124 confirmed contacts and 36 infection chains. Health officials believe actual numbers are substantially higher.
In late January, a 57-year-old man from central Israel was found to have been reinfected with the South African variant after returning from a trip to Turkey.
The Health Ministry said it was “making an effort to examine the extent of the outbreak” in Israel’s northern triangle region, made up of Arab towns and villages where the inoculation rollout has lagged behind the rest of the country due in part to mistrust in the central government.
The mutation has reached at least 32 countries, raising concerns as governments struggle to advance their vaccination campaigns.
Israel has vaccinated more than 3.9 million of its citizens, more than 40 percent of its population. Some 2.5 million have received the second dose.
Last month, Pfizer and BioNTech released lab test results that indicated their vaccine is effective against the N501Y mutation found in both the British and South African variants. Those results have not been peer-reviewed.
The companies said the preliminary findings “do not indicate the need for a new vaccine to address the emerging variants,” but they are “prepared to respond” with updates to their shot if necessary.
Another vaccine, developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, has proved to be only minimally effective in preventing mild and moderate forms of covid-19 caused by the South African variant.
Sharon Alroy-Preis, the head of the Israeli Health Ministry’s public health services, said much remains unknown about vaccine immunity and the emerging coronavirus variants, but the South African strain is believed to be more transmissible than others.
“We don’t have evidence yet that any of the variants are completely resistant to the vaccine, but there is some preliminary evidence to say that perhaps the effectiveness of the vaccine is somewhat less against the South African variant,” she told the public broadcaster Kan last month.
The variants have spurred concerns that vaccination campaigns might not be enough to stem future, potentially more severe waves of infection, and might further delay countries’ plans to lift restrictions on public life.
Israel closed Ben Gurion International Airport to most flights last month “to prevent the entry of the virus mutations and to ensure that we progress quickly with our vaccination campaign,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the time. He has since said that he will probably extend the closure past the current Feb. 20 end date, although Israel is expected to increase the quota of allowed incoming passengers to 2,000 a day.
As millions of Israelis get vaccinated and the number of new cases drops, the government is also planning to launch a “green certificate” program as early as next week to enable vaccine recipients to enter public spaces such as stadiums, concert halls, or performance venues.
Still, the government is mulling a fifth national lockdown ahead of the carnivallike Jewish holiday of Purim on Feb. 25, which was last year deemed to have been a superspreader event, particularly among ultra-Orthodox Israelis.
“We do not want to stop people from celebrating the holiday and ruining all the fun, but there is still a big worry,” said Israel’s coronavirus czar, Nachman Ash.