UPDATED: Israeli PM warns of state of emergency due to new coronavirus variant

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JERUSALEM, Nov 26 (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met health experts on Friday to discuss how best to respond to a new variant of the coronavirus that has been detected in South Africa that he said was more contagious than the Delta strain.

“We are currently on the verge of a state of emergency,” Bennett said, according to a statement from his office. “Our main principle is to act fast, strong and now.”

Israel has reported one case of the new strain in a traveller returning from Malawi.

Israel announced on Thursday it was barring its citizens from travelling to southern Africa and banning the entry of foreigners from the region.

South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini were added to Israel’s “red”, or highest-risk, travel list that reflects coronavirus infection rates overseas.

Israelis are banned from travelling to countries on the “red” list, unless they receive special permission from Israel’s health ministry.

In a statement announcing the measures, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office said citizens of the seven southern African nations would not be eligible to enter Israel.

Israelis returning home from those countries would be required to spend between 7-14 days in a quarantine hotel after arrival.

The variant – called B.1.1.529 – has a “very unusual constellation” of mutations, which are concerning because they could help it evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible, scientists told reporters at a news conference in South Africa.

South Africa has confirmed around 100 specimens as B.1.1.529, but the variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, with the Hong Kong case a traveller from South Africa.

Israel has recorded 1.3 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 8,000 dead since the pandemic began.

Around 57% of Israel’s population of 9.4 million is fully vaccinated, according to the Health Ministry.

A fourth wave of infections that hit Israel in June began subsiding in September. But over the past two weeks the “R”, or reproduction rate of the virus, that had remained below one for two months, began climbing and has now crossed that threshold, indicating the virus could again be spreading exponentially.

Photo – A man walk at Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel. EPA-EFE/ABIR SULTAN

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