Israel halts foreign travelers from UK over fears of mutating coronavirus

The new variant of Covid-19 popped up in Britain and spreads infection faster. Returnees with Israeli citizenship will have to go into quarantine hotels.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

After a late-night meeting Saturday in the Ministry of Health, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided that no foreigners other than diplomats will be able to enter Israel for the time being from the United Kingdom due to a mutation of the Covid-19 virus first reported in that country.

The Population and Immigration Authority informed airlines of the ban Sunday morning, which also includes those merely using a UK airport as a travel hub from other locations.

The Health Ministry recommended on Sunday that people from South Africa and Denmark be prevented from entering Israel as well. Denmark made news in November when it announced it had culled 17 million minks after the ferret-like animals, raised for their fur, were found to harbor a mutation of the virus.

The Health Ministry also recommended that those returning from Australia and New Zealand be sent to quarantine hotels. Brazil has been floated as a candidate for tighter restrictions but was not mentioned in the ministry’s recommendations.

Israel’s Defense Ministry said earlier that hotels were being prepared “to receive returnees… within 24 hours from the decision of the Corona Cabinet” that is meeting Sunday.

“The British mutation causes more rapid infection,” explained Health Ministry Director-General Hezi Levy on Kan Reshet Bet, explaining the precautions.

Lab tests in Britain have shown the new strain in more than 1,100 cases since late September. On Saturday night, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a “stay at home” order which started Sunday at midnight for all residents of London and much of south and east England due to the new circumstances.

Wales is also going to enter lockdown at the same time, while mainland Scotland is expected to join the day after Christmas.

“We have said throughout this pandemic that we must and we will be guided by the science,” Johnson said. “When the science changes, we must change our response.”

A second wave of infections had already partially closed commercial life in Britain for the last several weeks.

In a piece of good news, the new strain has not yet been observed to be more deadly than “regular” Covid-19.

More encouraging still, the mutation does not seem to make it less vulnerable to the vaccines that have already begun to roll off the production line and into countries around the world.

“It seems hard to see that this virus is going to be able to evolve its way away from vaccine efficacy,” said Egon Ozer, an infectious-diseases expert at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Illinois, commenting in a Washington Post report last week following British Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s announcement of the new variant in the House of Commons.

This particular variant has been on the UK radar since September, said the report. According to microbial genomics Prof. Nick Loman of the University of Birmingham, this variant has a “striking” 17 mutations. It will continue to be closely watched as most of the gene changes are encoded for the spike protein – the part of the virus’ so-called crown, or corona, that enables it to enter and infect human cells.

Scientists in Great Britain who are part of the UK Covid-19 Genomics Consortium have been tracking mutations of the coronavirus almost since its appearance in the West a year ago, using a method known as genetic sequencing.

It is natural for a virus to change over time, they said, and this one is no different. In fact, “thousands” of mutations have already been discovered, according to Consortium director Prof. Sharon Peacock, the Post reported.