Hospitals in Israel have been instructed by the Ministry of Health to begin conducting PCR tests on new patients for the next three weeks amid a recent spike in COVID-19 cases.
In a letter to hospitals, Dr. Sigal Libert Taub, the head of the general medicine division at the Health Ministry, reportedly directed staff to perform PCR tests on all new admissions in internal wards, citing a rise in COVID-19 morbidity linked to the BA.2.86 variant of Omicron.
The letter also noted a lack in hospital testing which has left officials struggling to track infection rates. Like many other countries, most Israelis are testing for the virus using at-home kits.
“In order to more accurately gauge the extent of the current morbidity for the purpose of setting policy, we ask that over the next three weeks, a PCR test for the coronavirus be performed on everyone admitted for hospitalization at your institution,” the letter states, according to a translation by Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
The ministry noted in its letter that it is not currently issuing any new guidance for the general public but is closely monitoring morbidity trends and variants of the virus in Israel and throughout the world.
A copy of the letter was widely shared on social media.
The letter comes as Israel’s Ministry of Health said there are currently 1,081 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 245 hospitalizations, of which 45 are in serious condition, marking an increase month-on-month, Haaretz reported.
New Variant Detected in US, UK
Separately, the Jerusalem Post reported 136 COVID-19 cases were reported on average every day last week, compared to 104 new cases each day two weeks prior, marking a roughly 30 percent increase.
The rise in cases is being attributed to a new COVID-19 variant known as BA.2.86, or “Pirola,” which was first detected in Israel and is now being tracked by officials around the world.
According to the latest update from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), BA.2.86 has also been detected in human or wastewater samples in Canada, Denmark, the United States, the UK, South Africa, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, and Thailand.
BA.2.86 variant sequences have been reported from human specimens in Portugal, the CDC said.
“Genomic sequencing for SARS-CoV-2 has fallen in much of the world, and there is a delay between specimen collection and genomic sequencing. Because of both factors, it is likely that this variant is present in additional countries,” the health agency noted in an Aug. 30 update.
The variant is sparking concern because of the amount of mutations it carries compared to previous versions of COVID-19 and also because it has been detected in several locations within a short amount of time.
However, the CDC has stressed that with only a limited amount of data available, it is still too soon to know exactly how transmissible this variant is.
New Variant Has Additional Mutations
“BA.2.86 is a newly designated variant of SARS-CoV-2 that has a number of additional mutations compared with previously detected Omicron variants,” the health agency wrote in its latest update. “Specifically, the genetic sequence of BA.2.86 has changes that represent over 30 amino acid differences compared with BA.2, which was the dominant Omicron lineage in early 2022. BA.2.86 also has >35 amino acid changes compared with the more recently circulating XBB.1.5, which was dominant through most of 2023.”