Israel’s Health Ministry announced on Saturday that four cases of the highly contagious South African COVID-19 variant have been discovered in Israel.

The disturbing development comes amid Israel’s aggressive vaccination drive, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowing to defeat the pandemic by the end of March thanks to an agreement inked with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer earlier this week for the supply of additional millions of vaccine doses.

The four known cases represent two transmission chains, according to the ministry, one involving a man recently returned from South Africa and the other involving the family of a recent returnee.

All individuals arriving in the country from the United Kingdom or South Africa, where new, highly contagious COVID-19 strains have recently been discovered, must quarantine at special state-run hotels for at least 12 days.

According to Pfizer, initial vaccine testing against the new strain discovered in the United Kingdom has so far been effective, with promising results also emerging from the South African variant, but more study is still required.

However, the Israeli Military Intelligence unit tracking the pandemic reported that according to preliminary studies, the South African mutation is resistant to antibodies and can therefore infect recovered COVID-19 patients. The report stressed that “further research is needed to determine the mutation’s resistance to the vaccine.”

According to the report, the mutation first appeared in eastern Cape Town and has come to dominate the region within weeks. South African authorities speculate that the variant might be the reason for the current rise in coronavirus morbidity in the country, especially among young people.

While the United Kingdom and South African variants are more contagious than the non-mutated virus, there is no evidence that either is more dangerous, said the Health Ministry.

Meanwhile, Israeli Health Minister Yuli Edelstein tweeted on Sunday that the first three weeks of the country’s vaccination campaign have been a great success.

“Yesterday [Saturday] we began administering the second dose [of Pfizer’s BioNTech vaccine]. We have so far vaccinated 1,817,999 people with the first dose. More vaccine shipments are expected to arrive today [Sunday].” The minister called on all Israelis to get vaccinated and to adhere to lockdown rules. Israel began a strict COVID-19 lockdown on Jan. 7 due to rising morbidity.

Shipments of Pfizer vaccines are expected to arrive in Israel throughout the week, with 100,000 doses set to arrive at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Sunday.

According to Health Ministry data, 72 percent of Israelis over the age of 60 have already received the first dose of inoculation. Sixty percent of Arab Israelis over the age of 60 have been vaccinated, and education staff are expected to start receiving vaccines this week.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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