Tag: Covid-19

British Variant 45% More Contagious than Original Virus

According to TAU study, based on data from 300,000 tests for Covid-19.

A new study at Tel Aviv University found that the British variant (termed: B.1.1.7) of Covid-19 is 45% more contagious than the original virus. The researchers relied on data from about 300,000 PCR tests for Covid-19 obtained from the COVID-19 testing lab, which was established in collaboration with the Electra Group. According to the researchers, “The study proves that active monitoring of at-risk population and prioritized vaccination programs can prevent hundreds of deaths.” The new study was conducted by Prof. Ariel Munitz and Prof. Moti Gerlitz of the Department of Clinical Microbiology and Immunology at the Sackler Faculty of Medicine, together with Dr. Dan Yamin and PhD student Matan Yechezkel from the Laboratory for Epidemic Modeling and Analysis (LEMA) at the Department of Industrial Engineering, all at Tel Aviv University. The study’s results were published in the prominent scientific journal Cell Reports Medicine. The Electra-TAU laboratory was established in March 2020, right after the outbreak of the first wave of the pandemic in Israel. To date, it has analyzed hundreds of thousands of tests from all over the country – from public drive-in test facilities, as well as programs targeting specific populations – such as ‘Shield for Fathers and Mothers’ which routinely ran tests in at-risk hotspots like retirement homes. Prof. Ariel Munitz explains: “We use a kit that tests for three different viral genes. In the British variant, also known as B.1.1.7, one of these genes, the S gene, has been erased by the mutation. Consequently, we were able to track the spread of the variant even without genetic sequencing.” According to Prof. Munitz, the data from the lab shows that the spread of the British variant in Israel was very rapid: On December 24, 2020 only 5% of the positive results were attributed to the British variant. Just six weeks later, in January 2021, this variant was responsible for 90% of Covid-19 cases in Israel. The current figure is about 99.5%. “To explain this dramatic increase, we compared the R number of the SARS-CoV-2 virus with the R of the British variant. In other words, we posed the question: How many people, on the average, contract the disease from every person who has either variant? We found that the British variant is 45% – almost 1.5 times – more contagious.”

Vaccine Saved Hundreds

In the second stage of the study, the researchers segmented contagion by age groups. The results indicated that the turning point for the 60+ population compared to other age groups occurred two weeks after 50% of Israel’s 60+ population received their first vaccine shot: “Until January we saw a linear dependence of almost 100% between the different age groups in new cases per 1,000 people,” says Dr. Dan Yamin. “Two weeks after 50% of the 60+ population received the first dose of the vaccine this graph broke sharply and significantly. During January a dramatic drop was observed in the number of new cases in the 60+ group, alongside a continued rise in the rest of the population. Simply put, since more than 90% of those who died from Covid-19 were over 60, we can say that the vaccine saved hundreds of lives – even in the short run.”

Active Monitoring of At-Risk Populations

Moreover, the new study proves that active monitoring of at-risk populations works. “There is a threshold value for determining whether a specific test is positive or negative for the virus – with a lower value indicating a higher viral load,” says Prof. Munitz. “When we compared the threshold values of the different genes in 60+ residents of retirement homes with the values measured in 60+ persons in the general population, we saw significantly higher values in the retirement homes. This means that the viral load in retirement homes was lower compared to the rest of the population. Since the residents of retirement homes are tested routinely, while other people are usually tested only when they don’t feel well or have been in contact with someone who had tested positive for the virus, we conclude that constant monitoring of at-risk populations is a method that works. It is important to emphasize: the relatively low viral load was found in retirement homes despite the fact that the British variant had already begun to spread in all populations. Consequently, we show that monitoring retirement homes, together with vaccination that gives precedence to vulnerable populations, prevent illness and mortality.” Dr. Yemin concludes: “Due to crowded conditions, large households and age distribution in the Israeli population, the coronavirus had a more favorable environment for spreading in Israel compared to most Western countries. Our message to the world is that if with our problematic starting point a distinct decline was identified, other Western countries can certainly expect the curve to break – despite the high contagion of the British variant – with a dramatic drop in severe cases following the vaccination of 50% of the older population, alongside targeted testing at risk epicenters.” Featured image: Left to Right: Prof. Ariel Munitz, Dr. Dan Yamin and Prof. Moti Gerlitz

COVID-19 Vaccinations at TAU

400 students received their second COVID-vaccine on campus this month.

While an impressive number of Israelis (close to 5.2 million) have received at least one Covid-19 vaccine dose, there are individuals that do not belong to any of the Israeli health providers who have found themselves ineligible for Covid-19 vaccine. Maureen Adiri Meyer, Director of TAU International had overheard some of her students voicing concerns about being unable to get vaccinated and decided to take action. In cooperation with Magen David Adom (Israel’s National Emergency Pre-Hospital Medical and Blood Services Organization), TAU International organized two Covid-19 vaccination days three weeks apart, open for all TAU students including for the university’s international students and students from the Palestinian Authority. The vaccination conveniently took place in an auditorium right here on TAU campus. The turnout was great on both days; over 400 students were very grateful for the opportunity to get vaccinated.

Gradual Return to Campus

Maureen shares that “vaccines were made available to all those of our students who wanted to be vaccinated, including to students from the Palestinian Authority. After a full year of Corona, we miss all of our students, and look forward to a return to campus life in accordance with the ‘Green Pass’ directives.” TAU International have students from all over the world, including India, Colombia, Brazil, China, the USA, England, France, Germany, Australia, and Japan. Many of the international students expressed joy and gratitude for the opportunity to get vaccinated. Paola Gutiérrez from Columbia, is one of TAU’s international students. She arrived in Israel five months ago and is studying for her master degree in biochemistry. She tells us that her stay in Israel has been great so far, but she is happy that things are opening up again after the lockdown. In the video below, Paola had just received her 2nd jab of the Covid-19 vaccine. She tells us she’s the first among her friends (back in Columbia) to get fully vaccinated.  
Featured image:
Mission Accomplished! Happy and vaccinated students at TAU campus
 

Covid-19 Vaccination of Nursing Mothers May Protect Babies

Promotes production of important antibodies in breast milk.

We may have some good news: Covid-19 vaccination of nursing mothers might actually work to protect not only them, but their babies as well. This was found in a new study conducted jointly by Tel Aviv University and the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center – Ichilov, in order to find out whether Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine was effective in producing antibodies in breast milk, and also to determine the qualities of these antibodies (whether they have the potential to neutralize the virus). The study was conducted during the months January and February 2021, shortly after the vaccines arrived in Israel, and included 10 breastfeeding mothers. The volunteers received two shots of the vaccine, 21 days apart, and the levels of antibodies in both their blood and breast milk were tested at four points in time, following vaccination. Blood and breast milk, it was found, are well synchronized with regard to the rise of the levels of the specific antibodies generated by the vaccine. In both blood and breastmilk, the significant increase occurs 14 days after the first shot, and continues 7 days after the second shot. The antibodies that develop in breastmilk hold the potential to neutralize the virus, and thus prevent the disease, by blocking the virus from binding with receptors on host cells. The leading research team at Tel Aviv University included Dr. Yariv Wine and the PhD student Aya Kigel from the Shmunis School of Biomedicine and Cancer Research at the Faculty of Life Sciences. The team at the Lis Maternity and Women’s Hospital at the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center was led by Dr. Michal Rosenberg-Friedman and Prof. Ariel Many. The paper is currently undergoing peer review and can be read here >>

Academic First Responders

How TAU sparked a learning revolution in the wake of COVID-19.

By Idit Nirel

When COVID-19 broke in Israel in mid-March and the country shut down, Tel Aviv University (TAU) decided to continue teaching all courses online—almost overnight.

While many professors and students struggled to adapt, Prof. Guy Mundlak was ready.  

Prof. Guy Mundlak

​Prof. Guy Mundlak. Photo: Yoram Reshef.

Mundlak, who teaches both at the Buchmann Faculty of Law and the Department of Labor Studies of the Gordon Faculty of Social Sciences, made the change to online teaching 4 years ago. One of his courses, “Labor Law,” is a hybrid course; students study theoretical materials on their own through online videos of lectures, and the in-person sessions are dedicated to discussions and analyzing the latest case studies. Mundlak’s motivation to go digital preceded COVID-19 and stemmed from a different reason:

“Teaching this course for over 20 years, I couldn’t reinvent the wheel and find new ways to teach the same material every time,” he says. Making the course digital refreshed it.

Mundlak sees online learning not as a constraint, but as an opportunity: “The format allows students to learn the general concepts at their own pace, and I can focus my classroom lessons on what interests us here and now, without worrying if I’ve covered all of the material in time for the exam,” he explains. “This approach leaves me more room for spontaneity, for dealing with matters of the hour, and for diving deep into topics with the students. As a result, I don’t just lecture to my students; I engage and involve them in issues that touch their everyday lives—which is the best way to learn.”

With the pandemic and lockdown crushing the economy, Mundlak’s course became especially relevant to his students in the spring of 2020. He dedicated his classes—taught via Zoom—to employment issues that emerged during the Corona pandemic, such as the ramifications of layoffs and furloughs. Because most of his students had been working as waiters or in other hourly jobs to finance their studies, these subjects were not just academic theory, but reality, for many of them.

Coronavirus Pushes Learning Online

Dr. Tal Soffer. Photo: Yoram Reshef.

Providing Prof. Mundlak with digital tools for online teaching was Dr. Tal Soffer, Director of Virtual TAU, the unit responsible for enhancing the University’s digital teaching capacity and resources.  According to her, “online courses or integrating digital methods into other courses allow for learning that is customized to students’ needs.” At the same time, “online learning can provide students with skills for lifelong learning, which are crucial for success in today’s labor market—such as time management and the ability to learn independently.”

As Coronavirus spread in Israel and lockdown appeared imminent, Soffer and her team were already working around the clock to facilitate the shift to online studies. It was a success. More than 90,000 live online lessons took place over the spring semester, in addition to thousands of lessons recorded for independent study. All in all, online learning during the lockdown accounted for more than 50,000 hours and 10 Terabits in digital volume.

 

TAU student Michal Ferenz. Photo: Yoram Reshef.

Soffer and her team set up a technical support hotline for online learning; they received as many as 700 calls per day. In addition to assisting professors in overcoming the technicalities of online teaching, the team also created more than 50 video guides showing lecturers how to use online learning tools to make lessons more engaging.

The team also conducted large-scale surveys among 7,000 students and 750 faculty members. They found that a vast majority of students wanted to incorporate online learning into their studies in the future.

Like other universities around the world, TAU also faced the new challenge of conducting online exams and evaluations. Spring semester exams were conducted from home with supervisors overseeing students through Zoom.

During the 2020-2021 academic year, TAU is introducing a pilot computerized authentication system for online exams. The new technology will secure online exams by verifying students’ identity and monitoring their presence and activities during the exam. Although this is a big step forward, Soffer is aware that in the long run adopting more of these technologies may be intrusive. Instead of relying on anti-cheating applications, Soffer says, the University should also encourage alternative evaluation methods, such as essays and group projects.

“The Corona crisis profoundly disrupted higher education and forced it to make the transition to the digital world—and, in a way, I believe this is exactly the kind of disruption that was needed. The question is, how do we move forward from here?” Soffer says.

Innovating on all Levels

“Universities all around the world understood a long time ago that they have to transform learning and to enhance their online and digital tools,” says Yuval Shreibman, Director of TAU Online – Innovative Learning Center.  The Center started producing online courses long before Corona to make academia more accessible through technology.

“COVID-19 caused us to leap forward and address problems that we could previously overlook. At the same time, it shows us that we need to make complementary classroom learning more active and engaging.”

Given the volatile reality and constantly changing regulations, TAU prepared for all possible scenarios for the new academic year. While it intended to offer first-year students the option to physically attend classes, studies were conducted online for the duration of the first semester. In response, Virtual TAU has launched an unprecedented effort to arm lecturers with versatile presentation tools and introduce additional courses that are fully online.


Virtual TAU Team. Photo: Yoram Reshef.

Admissions to the University are also going online, with a new admissions track based on participation and success in specific online courses chosen by each faculty. The new track is currently intended for candidates who, because of COVID-19, could not take standardized university admissions tests. Yet, it also provides greater access to the University for young Israelis from disadvantaged backgrounds or outlying communities, who otherwise might not be able to study at TAU.

In the fall of 2021, TAU plans to launch a new fully online international MBA program, the first of its kind to be offered by an Israeli university. It will combine video courses that students will watch independently, with personal guidance from teaching staff, online study forums and projects. Based on the same high entrance requirements as the regular MBA programs at TAU’s Coller School of Management—recently ranked as the 13th school in the world for producing VC-backed entrepreneurs—the program is expected to attract ambitious students from across the globe.

COVID-19 underlined the importance of online learning at TAU so much that President Ariel Porat created a new position to oversee educational innovation; Prof. Liat Kishon-Rabin became Dean of Innovation in Learning and Teaching in July. “TAU has always prided itself as a leader in educational innovation, but the Corona pandemic has highlighted the need to focus on this field even more,” says Prof. Porat. “I trust that Prof. Kishon-Rabin will build on our existing achievements and lead us through the post-Corona era with vision and success.”

Read about Minducate, an innovation and learning center at TAU. 

Providing Critical Support during Online Learning

Alberto Meschiany. Photo: Moshe Bedarshi.

Despite the positive insights gleaned about online learning, TAU must take into account students who struggled with remote learning as it prepares for a new academic year in the shadow of COVID-19. Alberto Meschiany, Head of the Psychological Services Unit at TAU’s Student Services Division, says that at the beginning of the crisis, his unit experienced a 15% rise in requests for psychological support.

“For many students, the anxiety resulting from the pandemic itself and its economic implications was coupled with the stress of having to study and take exams from home,” he says. “For students who live in the dorms or come from lower socio-economic levels this was exceptionally difficult. Many of them don’t have a quiet place to study. Some live in remote towns that don’t have the Internet network to support continuous online studies.”

Yet, according to Meschiany, it isn’t only the logistical and technological barriers that made the shift to online learning difficult for many TAU students. “Distance from other students can create feelings of alienation and loneliness. All the technology in the world cannot replace the support that students get from their peers,” he says. “In addition, the lack of a personal lecturer-student relationship has a negative effect on academic development. The ability to knock on a lecturer’s door and ask a question or discuss a topic spontaneously is lost with online learning.”

Meschiany believes that as the University adopts more online learning methods, it should make an effort to tailor them to accommodate students with various difficulties. “They will need our active help,” he says.

The Student Viewpoint

Looking back at lessons learned from the “first wave” of online learning, there is no question that TAU can learn the most from its students. Jonathan Berkheim, a master’s student in chemistry and spokesperson for TAU’s Student Union when the pandemic started, experienced the lockdown and its aftermath from several perspectives.

As a senior member of the Student Union, he fielded numerous calls from students who struggled to study within the new framework. Even students who fared well felt shortchanged, according to Berkheim. “The social interaction, class discussions and campus life are crucial parts of the package that students expect from university studies.” 

Jonathan Berkheim. Photo: Moshe Bedarshi.

At the same time, Berkheim says that the unusual circumstances broke traditional, hierarchical barriers between students and professors. They found themselves communicating directly on WhatsApp groups, saw each other’s homes during Zoom sessions, and shared similar experiences of life during the lockdown. “I hope that the University will embrace this new paradigm for student-professor relations in the future.”

In addition, as a teaching assistant, he experienced distance learning from the other side of the virtual podium: “Something gets lost in translation. Students get distracted more easily. It was hard for me to know if they really understood what I was teaching.”

Finally, as a student himself, he found that watching recorded lessons at his own pace was convenient. “Face-to-face learning in the classroom is crucial, but combining it with independent online studies will have great benefits for students,” Berkheim concludes.

Among TAU students studying remotely are also hundreds of international students from over 100 countries, who are enrolled in over 60 English-led academic programs offered by TAU International. In the midst of the crisis, TAU International launched an online summer course, titled: “COVID-19: From Crisis to Opportunity,” which attracted more than 80 participants from Asia, South America, North America and Europe.

Read about how TAU Impact, the University’s flagship community service program, adapted to the pandemic.
 

As TAU heads toward another academic year, it is clear that life with COVID-19 has become the new normal. All players involved in online learning understand that TAU must embrace the advantages moving forward.

“Until recently, when I was presenting my own field of research—which deals with future trends in the labor market and predicts that people would increasingly shift to working from home—people would tell me that it sounds too futuristic,” says Prof. Mundlak. “Now it is has become a reality. The future is here.”

Featured image: TAU Life Sciences Prof. Nir Ohad films a remote lecture at the TAU Online studio. Photo: Yoram Reshef.

TAU Study Proves that Light Can Kill Coronavirus

Groundbreaking research finds UV-LED diodes efficiently and cheaply disinfect social spaces.

A revolution in disinfection? Researchers from Tel Aviv University have proven that the coronavirus can be killed efficiently, quickly and cheaply using ultraviolet (UV) light-emitting diodes (UV-LEDs). This is the first study in the world conducted on the disinfection efficiency of a virus from the family of coronaviruses using UV-LED irradiation at different wavelengths or frequencies. The study was led by Prof. Hadas Mamane, Head of the Environmental Engineering Program at the School of Mechnical Engineering, Iby and Aladar Fleischman Faculty of Engineering, and was conducted in collaboration with Prof. Yoram Gerchman of Oranim College, Dr. Michal Mandelboim, the Director of the National Center for Influenza and Respiratory Viruses at Sheba Medical Center at Tel HaShomer, and Nehemya Friedman from Tel Hashomer. The article was published in the Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology B: Biology.

In the study, the researchers tested the optimal wavelength for killing the coronavirus, and found that a length of 285 nanometers was almost as efficient in disinfecting the virus as a wavelength of 265 nanometers, requiring less than half a minute to destroy more than 99.9% of the coronaviruses. This result is significant because the cost of 285 nm LED bulbs is much lower than that of 265 nm bulbs, and the former are also more readily available. Eventually, as the science develops, the industry will be able to make the necessary adjustments and install the bulbs in robotic systems, or air conditioning, vacuum, and water systems, and thereby be able to efficiently disinfect large surfaces and spaces. Prof. Mamane believes that the technology will be available for use in the near future.

“The entire world is currently looking for effective solutions to disinfect the coronavirus,” says Prof. Mamane. “The problem is that in order to disinfect a bus, train, sports hall or plane by chemical spraying, you need physical manpower, and in order for the spraying to be effective, you have to give the chemical time to act on the surface. We know, for example, that medical staff do not have time to manually disinfect, say, computer keyboards and other surfaces in hospitals – and the result is infection and quarantine. The disinfection systems based on LED bulbs, however, can be installed in the ventilation system and air conditioner, for example, and sterilize the air sucked in and then emitted into the room.”

“We discovered that it is quite simple to kill the coronavirus using LED bulbs that radiate ultraviolet light,” explains Prof. Mamane. “But no less important, we killed the viruses using cheaper and more readily available LED bulbs, which consume little energy and do not contain mercury like regular bulbs. Our research has commercial and societal implications, given the possibility of using such LED bulbs in all areas of our lives, safely and quickly. Of course, as always when it comes to ultraviolet radiation, it is important to make it clear to people that it is dangerous to try to use this method to disinfect surfaces inside homes. You need to know how to design these systems and how to work with them so that you are not directly exposed to the light.”

Ultraviolet radiation is a common method of killing bacteria and viruses, and most of us are familiar with such disinfecting bulbs from their use in water purifiers, such as Tami4. UV radiation mainly damages nucleic acids. Last year, a team of researchers led by Prof. Mamane and Prof. Gerchman patented a combination of different UV frequencies that cause dual-system damage to the genetic load and proteins of bacteria and viruses, from which they cannot recover-which is a key factor that is ignored.“ In the future, we will want to test our unique combination of integrated damage mechanisms and more ideas we recently developed on combined efficient direct and indirect damage to bacteria and viruses on different surfaces, air and water.”

Featured image: Prof. Hadas Mamane

COVID-19 Takes TAU’s Legal Clinics into High Gear

Clinic staff share experiences of protecting those most affected by pandemic

Dr. Yuval Livnat, Adv. Anat Ben Dor and Adv. Irina Rozina

The Refugee Rights Clinic

The coronavirus crisis forced the Clinic to shift to remote work. However, this style of working is not ideal for asylum-seekers, and significant challenges arose. Intake interviews with new clients are complex; they touch on sensitive issues and may require translation services. The absence of face-to-face interviews makes it hard to build trusting relationships, and the completion and transfer of required forms and documentation is difficult; protecting personal privacy and information is problematic when communication takes place over the telephone or on Zoom. During this period, the refugee and asylum-seeker community faces a major economic crisis. Israeli citizens are supported by a social safety net. Asylum-seekers are not eligible for this support and have legitimate fears that they will be unable to pay rent and feed their children. In light of this harsh reality, April’s Supreme Court ruling cancelling the “Deposit Law” (authorizing the expropriation of 20% of an asylum seeker’s monthly earnings) provided some relief. This decision came three years after the Clinic filed the Supreme Court petition arguing that the deposit violated the workers’ legal rights, in cooperation with Kav LaOved. The Supreme Court ordered that funds be returned. The Clinic’s students, along with volunteers from Kav LaOved, helped asylum-seekers to complete the required forms and open bank accounts, so their deposits could be returned.”

Adv. Liad Strolov and Adv. Yael Havassy

The Clinic for the Rights of Holocaust Survivors and the Elderly

The coronavirus crisis has significantly impacted our clinic. Firstly, the way we work with clients and students changed entirely after we transitioned to online rather than in-person meetings. This is particularly challenging for older clients that are unfamiliar with Zoom and other technologies. In addition, since the elderly population faces the greatest risk from the coronavirus, many are suffering from side issues caused by the crisis such as intense loneliness; inaccessibility to caregiver services; threats of eviction from nursing facilities due to an increased demand for space to care for COVID-19 patients; restrictions on movement in public housing facilities; and of course, restrictions barring them from returning to work under the current emergency regulations.”

Adv. Irit Ulman and Adv. Idit Zimmerman

The Workers’ Rights Clinic

At the onset of the pandemic, it was clear that regulations regarding labor law and social security would be greatly affected. Israel opted to deal with the widespread closure of workplaces by increasing and extending unemployment benefits. As the number of unemployed Israelis continued to rise, those of us working in the field were occupied with unprecedented challenges to labor law resulting from the crisis. From the outset, the Clinic collaborated with various organizations to ensure that workers’ rights were protected. In early April, the government passed emergency regulations eliminating the legal requirement for employers to obtain a permit prior to sending female employees under protection (e.g. during pregnancy, maternity leave, etc.) on furlough. We submitted an urgent petition to the Supreme Court on behalf of a group of organizations, demanding that the regulations be repealed; the petition argued that the process by which the regulations were passed were flawed, and that the regulations caused disproportionate harm to women. Following the petition’s submission, and prior to a hearing at the Supreme Court, the regulations were annulled.

The crisis also created increased challenges for foreign caregivers working with the elderly, due to severe movement limitations. Since there is an increased risk to the elderly, family members often placed severe restrictions on the movements of in-home caregivers. Although their fears may have been warranted, severe restrictions could result in infringements on human rights and workers’ rights (e.g. freedom of movement, loss of days off, etc.). The Clinic, in cooperation with the Clinic for the Rights of Holocaust Survivors and the Elderly, appealed to policy-makers to ensure that the rights of caregivers and the elderly people they support were protected.”

Dr. Eran Tzin and Adv. Amnon Keren

The Clinic for Environmental Justice and the Protection of Animal Rights

“At the beginning of the crisis, the Clinic offered support for animal welfare organizations and activists struggling with challenges arising from the imposed lockdown; the Clinic helped to map crucial issues, formulate strategies, and provided legal advice and representation, as needed. A key aspect of the Clinic’s activities was ensuring ongoing routine care of animals in various facilities (e.g. sanctuaries, shelters, etc.) since severe restrictions on activity and movement limited the possibility of providing them with food and vital veterinary care. The Clinic appealed to the Ministry of Health and other relevant parties, requesting that those caring for animals be exempted from emergency regulations, including in areas heavily affected by the virus. Furthermore, we requested that measures preventing harm to animals be an integral part of any national plan to deal with the crisis. Our efforts, in combination with public pressure, were successful and led to the requested policy changes. The Clinic also succeeded in canceling fines given to individuals while caring for animals, despite their compliance with emergency regulations. These are concerned and caring citizens who volunteered and used their own funds to care for animals, even though they faced financial difficulties due to the crisis.”

Featured image: Human Rights Clinic students and attorneys, Hicham Chabaita and Debby Tal Sadeh.

Study: Women Suffer More from COVID-related Orofacial Pain

New TAU dental research finds that pandemic stress results in excessive teeth grinding and facial pain.

A new study from the Goldschleger School of Dental Medicine at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine found that during Israel’s first lockdown the general population exhibited a considerable rise in orofacial pain, as well as jaw-clenching in the daytime and teeth-grinding at night – physical symptoms often caused by stress and anxiety. The study was led by Dr. Alona Emodi-Perlman and Prof. Ilana Eli of TAU’s School of Dental Medicine, in collaboration with Dr. Nir Uziel and Dr. Efrat Gilon of TAU, and researchers from the University of Wroclaw in Poland, who examined the Polish population’s reaction to the pandemic. The paper was published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine in October 2020.

Researchers Dr. Emodi-Perlman and Prof. Eli specialize in facial and jaw pain, with emphasis on TMD (Temporo-Mandibular Disorders) – chronic pain in the facial muscles and jaw joints, as well as Bruxism – excessive teeth-grinding and/or jaw-clenching, which can significantly damage the teeth and jaw joints. These syndromes are known to be greatly impacted by emotional factors such as stress and anxiety.

Accordingly, the researchers decided to conduct a study examining the presence and possible worsening of these symptoms in the general population during the first COVID-19 lockdown, due to the national emergency and rise in anxiety levels. The questionnaire was answered by a total of 1,800 respondents in Israel and Poland.

In Israel, a significant rise was found in all symptoms, compared to data from studies conducted before the pandemic:

  • In Israel’s general population:  The prevalence of TMD symptoms rose from about 35% in the past to 47% (increase of 12%) during the pandemic; the prevalence of jaw-clenching in the daytime rose from about 17% to 32% (increase of 15%); and teeth-grinding at night rose from about 10% to 36% (increase of 25%). Altogether a rise of 10%-25% was recorded in these symptoms, which often reflect emotional stress. People who had suffered from these symptoms before the pandemic exhibited a rise of about 15% in their severity.
  • The researchers found a high correlation between the symptoms on the one hand and gender and anxiety level on the other: Women suffer from these symptoms much more than men, and people with high levels of anxiety tend to develop them more than those with lower anxiety levels.
  • Dividing the respondents into age-groups also generated interesting results, with the middle group (35-55) reporting a much greater rise in symptoms compared to the younger (18-34) and older (56 and over) groups. At the bottom line, the group that suffered most from the symptoms during the first lockdown were women aged 35-55: 48% suffered from TMD, 46% clenched their jaws in the daytime, and about 50% ground their teeth at night.

In addition, comparing findings in Israel to results in Poland, the researchers found that probability of TMD and Bruxism was much higher among respondents in Poland.

Dr. Emodi-Perlman and Prof. Eli conclude: “Our study, conducted during the first lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic, found a significant rise in the symptoms of jaw and facial pain, jaw-clenching and teeth-grinding – well-known manifestations of anxiety and emotional distress. We found that women are more likely than men to suffer from these symptoms, and that the 35-55 age group suffered more than the younger (18-34) and older (56 and over) groups. We believe that our findings reflect the distress felt by the middle generation, who were cooped up at home with young children, without the usual help from grandparents, while also worrying about their elderly parents, facing financial problems and often required to work from home under trying conditions.”

TAU Researchers Discover Antibody Combo that Fights COVID-19

The cocktail, which could treat and temporarily prevent the coronavirus, is advancing to clinical trials

Researchers at Tel Aviv University identified a combination of COVID-19 antibodies that can serve as both medication for patients and preventive treatment for high-risk populations.  The antibody cocktail will be tested in clinical trials over the next few months. Similarly, TAU has submitted a patent application for the antibodies discovered by the researchers.

The scientific breakthrough was achieved by Dr. Natalia Freund and PhD student Michael Mor at the Laboratory of Human Antibody Research at TAU’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine. The results of the study are under revision in the PLOS Pathogens journal.

הדוקטורנט מיכאל מור בפעולה

PhD student Michael Mor

Another important find in the study was that asymptomatic COVID-19 sufferers or those who had mild symptoms developed a weaker antibody reaction, and therefore may contract the disease again. By contrast, all severely ill patients analyzed in the study developed neutralizing antibodies that are likely to protect them from reinfection.

Dr. Freund and her team sequenced thousands of antibodies produced in the bodies of Israeli COVID-19 patients. The researchers were able to isolate and characterize six antibodies derived from the blood of two severely ill patients. They then proved that combinations of three antibodies at a time are effective against COVID-19, providing natural immunity. The researchers found that the blood’s capacity for neutralizing the virus comes from several types of antibodies that simultaneously attack the virus, and the mix neutralizes the COVID-19 virus.

“Since the antibodies are natural and remain stable in the blood, one injection can protect against COVID-19 for several weeks, or even several months,” says Freund. “Our vision is that in the future, the cocktail will be used to treat COVID-19 patients – like the experimental cocktail administered to U.S. President Trump, or as a preventive measure for high-risk populations and medical personnel – until the much-awaited vaccine finally arrives. This cocktail was developed naturally by the patients’ immune systems, which means that it is probably safe for use,” say the researchers.

The team

The team

In the second stage of the project, the researchers tried to isolate specific antibodies that stop the virus from binding to the human cell and replicating itself inside the cell. They identified six different antibodies, obtained from two severely ill participants, and proved that these antibodies are effective in both treating and preventing infection in cell cultures.

The research began in April 2020, soon after the pandemic reached Israel. Dr. Freund and her team studied 18 of Israel’s earliest COVID-19 patients. “One question we asked was whether there was any difference between mild and severe cases – with regard to both the quality and quantity of the anti-viral antibodies produced by the immune system. We found a significant statistical difference between the two groups of patients in the ability of their antibodies to neutralize COVID-19: Only a small portion of the mildly ill participants developed neutralizing antibodies, and some developed no antibodies whatsoever. Thus, we may assume that people who were infected but remained asymptomatic or developed very mild symptoms, may possibly contract the disease a second time. The blood of all severely ill patients, on the other hand, contained neutralizing antibodies that will probably protect them from reinfection.”

Many experts took part in the project: participating patients were recruited with the help of Dr. David Hagin, Director of Allergy and Immunology at the Tel Aviv Sourasky (Ichilov) Medical Center and Dr. Oren Zimhony, Head of Infectious Diseases at the Kaplan Medical Center. Genetic sequencing of immune cells was conducted in collaboration with the Israeli startup immunai and sequence analysis was done with the help of Dr. Gur Yaari of Bar-Ilan University. The antibodies were characterized in collaboration with Prof. Jonathan Gershoni and Dr. Oren Kobiler of Tel Aviv University. Pseudo-viral neutralization assays were run with the assistance of Dr. Meital Gal-Tanamy and Dr. Moshe Dessau of Bar-Ilan University’s Faculty of Medicine in the Galilee. Neutralization tests for the cocktail of antibodies against the live virus were run in collaboration with Dr. Ben Croker of the University of California, San Diego.

Immunity Memory Cells Stay Stable Over Time After Recovery From COVID-19

Joint research between TAU and Hasharon Hospital (Rabin Medical Center) proposes the new possibility

Researchers of Tel Aviv University examined blood samples from 60 patients at Hasharon Hospital who had recovered from Corona, and found that memory B cells specific to the virus remain stable over time, but concurrently the antibodies in the blood decrease within just a few months. This finding prompted the researchers to raise the possibility that in the event of re-infection with the virus, symptomatic illness will be insignificant. The research was conducted by Dr. Yariv Wine of Tel Aviv University’s Shmunis School of Biomedicine and Cancer Research, and led by post-doctoral fellow Anna Vaisman-Mentesh, together with Dr. Dror Dicker, Director of the Department of Internal Medicine “D” at Hasharon Hospital, and department’s team.

They don’t forget so quickly

Since the SARS-CoV-2 is a new virus, there is as yet no data on immune memory over time among those recovered from the virus. In the current research, Dr. Wine and team checked the level of antibodies, as well as the B cell count in their group of subjects. As has been shown in other previous studies, the antibodies acting on the viral protein responsible for attaching itself to target cells in the host body, develop very quickly – but decay following recovery. In contrast, B cells, that remember the viral proteins and can efficiently reactivate upon reinfection, do not decline in recovered subjects over a period of six months.

“Corona is a serious illness and includes long-lasting side effects,” Dr. Wine explains. “For that reason, rehabilitation centers have been established for those recovering from Corona, such as the one at Hasharon Hospital, and it also enables us to continue examining blood samples even many months after recovery. From among the group of recovered patients who have volunteered to be part of the research, we collected blood samples at predetermined time intervals – 3 months after onset of disease, and again 3 months later. From the data thus gathered, we can say that over at least a 6 month time period, the subjects maintained a stable level of memory B cells specific to the viral protein. The significance of this is that if these subjects become re-infected, their immune system can quickly respond: B cells will create a secondary reaction which may prevent illness. On the other hand, due to the decay of the antibodies, those who have recovered can still be carriers of the virus, and perhaps also be able to infect others.”

Since the antibodies in the blood of those recovered from Corona decay with time, and in some cases even fall below detection threshold just 3 months after recovery, Dr. Wine and his team fear that serological surveys may be providing an inaccurate picture to decision-makers regarding spread of infection.

Concern over problem in reliability results in serological surveys

“Health organizations and the media talk a lot about serological surveys that check the level of antibodies in the blood, as a way of inferring the spread of disease in the population,” Dr. Wine says. “These surveys are very important, but in the light of the data on the decay of antibodies among recovered subjects, we might get a negative result when testing those who were infected in the past. If the antibodies are not maintained over time, and those who have recovered can still carry the virus and infect others, it is challenging to extrapolate from these surveys the breadth of infection spread in the population.”

Dr. Dicker adds that we are in a process of ongoing learning about Corona virus clinical illness when some recovered subjects still carry the virus. These findings add to our understanding of chronic illness from Corona and may shed light on future capabilities of the immune system of these recovered subjects.

Google Awards Competitive Grant to Tel Aviv University for COVID-19 Research

The grant is for high-impact research using Data Science and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to combat the coronavirus

Google.org, a Google fund aimed at supporting data based solutions for some of humanity’s greatest challenges, chose to award a competitive grant to Tel Aviv University for high-impact research employing Data Science and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to combat COVID-19. This step is one of many taken by Google in its ongoing effort to contribute to the global battle against the pandemic while also promoting its “AI for Social Good” research program – headed by, among others, Prof. Yossi Matias, Vice President at Google and CEO of the Research and Development Center at Google Israel. The Israeli center is a key player in Google’s endeavors to combat COVID-19, and also to help protect populations faced with natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and wildfires.

The grant is being awarded to TAU’s AI and Data Science Center for research employing AI techniques and advanced statistical methods to improve COVID-19 public health measures. Using data from government ministries (Health, Transport, etc.) and the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, the researchers intend to build an accurate high-resolution model of the spread of the pandemic and then use it to plan and test various methods for stopping infection. This interdisciplinary research brings together TAU scientists from the Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, the School of Public Health, the Department of Statistics and Operations Research, the Blavatnik School of Computer Science, the School of Electrical Engineering, and the Gertner Institute for Epidemiology and Health Policy Research.

Prof. Meir Feder, Head of the AI and Data Science Center at Tel Aviv University: “We’re proud that Google has chosen to award this significant grant to our center in order to expand COVID-19 research in Israel. This grant will support the development of AI and Reinforcement Learning based tools for planning and examining the effects of different steps on the spread of the pandemic. The research findings will be used by decision-makers in their efforts to establish policies for stopping the pandemic.”

Featured image: Prof. Meir Feder, Head of the AI and Data Science Center at Tel Aviv University

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