Coronavirus variants: Are they as scary as they sound?

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The government closed Israel’s borders almost completely at the end of January to prevent the arrival of new coronavirus variants, imposing restrictions almost unparalleled in any other democracy of the world.

As some of these restrictions are about to be relaxed a month and a half later, health officials are expressing concern over the risk of allowing in new variants.

While the British variant currently represents the vast majority of new cases detected in Israel – and some variants have been detected – experts suggested that while it is important to be vigilant, panic and alarm are not justified.

“Those who are familiar with infectious diseases and viruses know that mutations happen all the time,” said epidemiologist Nadav Davidovitch, director of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s School of Public Health. “It is important to know that the immune system also adapts to take care of them.”

While most mutations have no consequences, a cluster of mutations can engender a new variant, and the virus may create a different protein as a consequence. In the case of the coronavirus, the key protein to consider is the spike protein, which is found on the surface of the virus and allows it to penetrate host cells and cause infections.

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“Technically, a variant is defined as a ‘variant of concern,’ when the changes in the spike protein originate a variant that infects faster, has a more violent pathogenicity, or makes antibodies less effective,” Davidovitch said. “Mostly, however, even if the protein does change, the difference is not so dramatic.”

The virus that causes COVID-19 has mutated and produced variants from the very beginning, but have only come to the attention of the media now because more variants of concern have emerged, expert point out.

“However, this phenomenon is not creating the crazy change that is sometimes described,” Davidovitch said. “The vaccination campaign is not going to waste. I don’t think this is the correct way of portraying the situation.”

Davidovitch was referring to a remark that Public Health Services head Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis reportedly made earlier this week during the cabinet discussion on the opening of Ben-Gurion Airport.

The professor said that the vaccination is still effective.

“In addition, it is quite clear that if there is a need, we can adapt the vaccine – what is great about m-RNA vaccines is that it is much easier to modify them,” he said, referring to the technology employed by shots produced by both Pfizer and Moderna. “The process would be similar to what happens every year with the flu, but even simpler.”

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In order to identify and understand new variants, Davidovitch emphasized the importance of screening the genetic sequence of the virus in infected people, which can also help epidemiological investigations.

Rapidly screening all those who arrive from abroad and analyzing the genetic sequence of the virus for those who are found infected is the strategy Israeli authorities should pursue rather than closing the borders, according to Prof. Zeev Rotstein, head of Hadassah-University Medical Center in Jerusalem.

“I think that the tendency of the Health Ministry is to create some form of hysteria, maybe in the attempt to push people to vaccinate,” Rotstein said. “It is true that new mutations can come in through the airport, but this is life. What they have to do in order to protect us is to perform a PCR test on everyone who arrives, including those who are vaccinated. People who are infected should immediately undergo a next-generation sequencing test so that within 12 hours we will be able to know if there is a new mutation penetrating Israel, and block it.”

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Rotstein said that early detection is important, and that the authorities could be cautious without causing unnecessary panic and without preventing citizens from entering the country – “at least Israelis, because I would like for everyone who wants to come here to be able to do so,” he said.

The Hadassah head explained that it is crucial to learn to live with the virus.

“We cannot lock up Israel forever, at least for the near future, we have to go back to a life that is as normal as possible, while the virus is still here,” said Rotstein.

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