Tag: Covid-19

As Pandemic Persists, TAU Forges Ahead with COVID-19 Research on All Fronts

The University’s Center for Combating Pandemics leads research efforts in a range of fields.

As the COVID-19 pandemic nears the end of a second year, Tel Aviv University is maintaining its fast pace of scientific discovery in the global battle against coronavirus.  

Building on the University’s innovation record, TAU in 2020 launched the Center for Combating Pandemics. The Center harnesses the collective power of academia, hospitals, government and industry to promote research and guide government policy. It is the first entity of its kind in Israel, and potentially the world.  

Members of the Center include more than 100 research groups comprised of top TAU experts from all scientific disciplines across campus. Among them, over 60 researchers have, until now, conducted projects related to COVID-19. 

Academic Powerhouse

To date, the Center’s members have published findings from dozens of COVID-19 studies. Select examples include: 

Prof. Noam Shomron (Medicine) spearheaded a novel approach to remote monitoring of COVID-19 patients that flags early cardiovascular warnings of worsening health. More here.  

Prof. Shoshana Shiloh (Social Sciences) and team devised a model to determine the psychological and social factors that predict who will voluntarily take the COVID-19 vaccine.  

Prof. Dan Yamin’s (Engineering) lab developed a “big data” COVID-19 detection technology that could be used to reduce viral spread and help shape more efficient testing policy. More here.  

Prof. Isaac Sasson (Engineering) led a study to help improve understanding of COVID-19 mortality and age in countries with limited data. More here.  

A team led by Prof. Saharon Rosset (Exact Sciences) built a statistical model to better understand SARS-CoV-2 evolution and to predict future mutations of the virus, particularly those which lead to new variants. 

Prof. Aeyal Gross (Law) and team examined legal and public health implications of Israel’s “Green Pass” proof-of-vaccination rules under the country’s pandemic response. More here.  

Through big data methods, Prof. Tal Pupko’s (Life Sciences, Shmunis School) found that the swift implementation of lockdowns, rather than their strictness, was more effective in reducing COVID-19 mortality rates. More here.  

New Findings on the Horizon

Currently, the TAU researchers from the Center have approximately 30 ongoing coronavirus projects, including:  

Prof. Dan Peer (Life Sciences), TAU Vice President for Research & Development, is exploring best practices to advance the bourgeoning technology behind non-viral mRNA vaccines. 

Prof. Adi Stern’s (Life Sciences, Shmunis) lab has been studying the evolution of SARS-CoV-2, including the origin and behavior of the Omicron variant. More here.  

Prof. Ron Shamir (Exact Sciences) has teamed up with local hospitals to explore early predictors of deterioration in COVID-19 patients using machine-learning and “big data” methods. 

Prof. Yael Benyamini (Social Sciences) is leading a broad study on pregnancy and childbirth that surveyed the concerns of pregnant women about childbearing amid COVID-19. 

Prof. Miri Yemini (Humanities) & Dr. Efrat Blumenfeld (Arts) are leading an urban-sociological examination of remote teaching and learning during times of social distancing. 

Upcoming Events

In March, the Center plans to hold its first international conference to highlight recent COVID-19 research. The event will also recognize trailblazing research fellows and grant recipients. For registration and updates, visit: https://en-pandemics.tau.ac.il/save-the-date-first-tccp-convention .

Featured News: More than 100 research groups from all scientific disciplines across TAU campus are on the frontlines of the pandemic battle. (Photo: Moshe Bedarshi)

Seaweed – A Promising Defense Against Covid-19

Natural substance from marine algae prevents infection.

The lack of access to Covid-19 vaccines results in the deaths of many people and even accelerates the development of new variants. Researchers from Tel Aviv University, led by Prof. Alexander Golberg of the Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, have found that a substance called ‘ulvan’ extracted from edible marine algae prevents the infection of cells with the coronavirus.

The researchers believe this affordable and natural material may help solve serious problems, such as the spread of the coronavirus in large populations, especially in developing countries with limited access to vaccines. The study is still in its early stages, but the researchers are hopeful that the discovery will be used in the future to develop an accessible and effective drug to prevent coronavirus infection.

Affordable Solutions Needed

Prof. Golberg explains: “It is already clear today that the coronavirus vaccine alone, despite its effectiveness, will not be able to prevent the global spread of the pandemic. As long as the lack of access to vaccines remains unaddressed for billions of people in underprivileged communities, the virus is expected to develop increasingly more variants, which may be resistant to vaccines – and the war against the virus will continue.”

“It is very important to find affordable and accessible solutions to suit even economically weak populations in developing countries. With this aim, our lab tested a substance that could be extracted from a common seaweed. Ulvan is extracted from marine algae called Ulva, an edible ‘sea lettuce’ common in places like Japan, New Zealand and Hawaii,” he adds.

Golberg explains that his lab’s rational for exploring the potential use of ulvan for coronavirus defenses was motivated by previous discoveries of its effectiveness in preventing plant viruses along with some human viruses.

Successful Prevention Against Covid-19

To test their hypothesis, the TAU researchers grew Ulva algae and extracted the ulvan from it before sending samples to the Southern Research Institute in Alabama, which deals with infectious diseases. The US researchers built a lab model to test the activity of the substance produced by Prof. Golberg’s team. The cells were exposed to both the coronavirus and the ulvan. It was found that, in the presence of ulvan, the coronavirus did not infect the cells. As opposed to extracts from other algae tested, the substance demonstrated success in preventing coronavirus infection. 

According to the researchers, “The substance was produced in raw production, meaning it is a mixture of many natural substances, and we must find out which one is responsible for preventing cellular infection. After that, we will have to examine how, if at all, it works in humans.”

The research team consisted of Shai Sheffer, Arthur Rubin and Alexander Chemodanov from Dr. Golberg’s laboratory, Prof. Michael Gozin from the School of Chemistry and the Tel Aviv Universicy Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology. They collaborated with researchers from the Hebrew University, the Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba, and the Southern Research Institute in Alabama, USA. The article was published in the journal PeerJ.

Featured image: Specially designed closed system with photobioreactors for seaweed production at TAU

TAU Experts on Omicron: “Don’t Panic”

Our COVID-19 researchers weigh in on the latest strain.

As scientists race to understand the newest Omicron variant of COVID-19, Tel Aviv University experts share insights—largely reassuring—on the situation. The latest coronavirus strain dominating headlines was first discovered in South Africa in November. Cases have since emerged around the globe, including in Israel. Under the auspices of TAU’s Center for Combating Pandemics, dozens of teams across campus are contributing to global efforts to understand and combat the pandemic. Here is what they are saying about Omicron:  

“Keep Calm and Carry On”— with Protection 

Amid the media maelstrom and uncertainty surrounding Omicron, Dr. Oren Kobiler of the Sackler Faculty of Medicine proscribes the popular adage “keep calm and carry on.” 

“It is best not to panic over Omicron,” he says.​ “This new variant will not change the entire dynamic of the disease. Vaccine efficacy against severe illness was maintained against all variants so far, and it is unlikely that their efficacy will decrease against this variant.” ​

​From a biological and virological perspective, he notes that the Omicron variant is unique and needs further examination. However, the best thing for the general public to do is get fully vaccinated and wear masks. 

“The worst-case scenario is that we will face another wave of infection, but that should not lead to higher rates of mortality due to current vaccination rates,” he says.  

Kobiler, a virology expert, says that Israel is among countries with the highest rates of COVID-19 booster vaccination among its population. “Several immunological studies indicated that this gives us an edge for fighting new variants.” 

“Until everyone is vaccinated, though, we will keep seeing more mutations and variants,” he stresses, adding that widespread inoculation is particularly critical in developing countries where infection and mortality rates are significantly higher than in wealthier nations.  

Get Booster Shots ASAP 

  Prof. Eran Bacharach

The emergence of the Omicron variant has raised questions about the efficacy of booster shots in their current form as opposed to revamped inoculations that may emerge in the future.

Prof. Eran Bacharach, of the Wise Faculty of Life Sciences and a member of the Israeli Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Team, implores the public to get third injections as soon as possible of COVID-19 vaccines rather than waiting for new versions that may be better formulated to target Omicron. 

“It will still take at least several months before new versions of COVID-19 vaccines are available on the market,” says Bacharach, the head of the molecular virology lab at the Shmunis School of Biomedicine and Cancer Research.  

Prof. Adi Stern, also of the Shmunis School, echoes Kobiler and Bacharach’s calls, adding that until there are updated vaccines, additional new variants will likely emerge. She explains that the spread of infection within a population—or “chain of infection”—is what enables the development of mutations and variants.  

“Inoculation, even with vaccines that aren’t specifically formulated to target a certain strain, is the only thing that will break these ‘chains of infection’ and prevent the emergence of new variants,” says Stern, whose lab has been studying the evolution of SARS-CoV-2, now including the origin and behavior of the Omicron variant.  

 

Prof. Adi Stern

Furthermore, she notes that current vaccines are based on the original wild-type strains seen early in the pandemic. “These vaccines have proved effective thus far in protecting against severe disease and death from existing variants, including the Delta strain. Considering all this, it’s much better to be vaccinated now to promote individual and herd immunity.” 

Minding the Balance 

Between “pandemic fatigue” and hyperbolized fears stoked by some officials, the latest variant outbreak renews questions about how to manage the situation. To avoid spurring panic, Dr. Bruria Adini cautions that public officials should not jump to conclusions about the severity of the Omicron variant when addressing the public. 

“The public needs to be a full partner in the pandemic response. If officials lose the public’s trust, the situation will deteriorate,” says Adini, head of the Department of Emergency and Disaster Management in the School of Public Health, Sackler Faculty of Medicine. 

 

Dr. Bruria Adini

Adini, who has been conducting long-term studies of COVID-19 since March 2020, surveys the public every few months to gauge their emotional status and level of resilience over time. Her research continuously incorporates new developments that contribute to public perceptions, such as the risk versus reward of vaccinating children.  

“It could be Omicron today or a new variant tomorrow, but we’ll live with COVID-19 for at least the near future,” she says.

One of the main concerns countries need to manage now is the prevention of healthcare system overloads.”Strengthening the capacity of medical systems with measures such as more ICU and internal medicine beds will foster more public resilience, which my research has found to be the greatest predictor of behavior such as agreeing to get vaccinated,” she says.  

As opposed to earlier in the pandemic, she notes that the public and governments have shifted their mindset toward coronavirus. She points to the lessening of widespread lockdowns and closures of workplaces and schools amid each new development as a positive indication of evolving pandemic responses.  

Select Omicron media coverage featuring TAU experts:  

 

TAU Researchers Identify COVID Proteins that Cause Strokes and Heart Attacks

Findings may help develop drug to halt virus’ damage to blood vessels.

Two years into the global pandemic, we still do not know which of the proteins in the SARS-CoV-2 virus are the ones responsible for cases of severe vascular damage. For the first time since the outbreak of COVID-19, a TAU-led team of experts has been able to identify 5 of the 29 proteins that make up the virus that are responsible for damaging blood vessels. The researchers hope that the identification of these proteins will help develop targeted drugs for COVID-19 that reduce vascular damage.

Coronavirus Deconstructed

“We see a very high incidence of vascular disease and blood clotting, for example stroke and heart attack, among COVID patients,” says Dr. Ben Maoz of TAU’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and Sagol School of Neuroscience. “We tend to think of COVID as primarily a respiratory disease, but the truth is that coronavirus patients are up to three times more likely to have a stroke or heart attack. All the evidence shows that the virus severely damages the blood vessels or the endothelial cells that line the blood vessels. However, to this day the virus has been treated as one entity. We wanted to find out which proteins in the virus are responsible for this type of damage.”

The novel coronavirus is a relatively simple virus – it comprises a total of 29 different proteins (compared to the tens of thousands of proteins produced by the human body). The Tel Aviv University researchers used the RNA of each of the COVID-19 proteins and examined the reaction that occurred when the various RNA sequences were inserted into human blood vessel cells in the lab; they were thereby able to identify five coronavirus proteins that damage the blood vessels.

Dr. Ben Maoz in his lab

Minimizing Damage to Blood Vessels

“When the coronavirus enters the body, it begins to produce 29 proteins, a new virus is formed, that virus produces 29 new proteins, and so on,” explains Dr. Maoz. “In this process, our blood vessels turn from opaque tubes into kind of permeable nets or pieces of cloth, and in parallel there is an increase in blood clotting. We thoroughly examined the effect of each of the 29 proteins expressed by the virus, and were successful in identifying the five specific proteins that cause the greatest damage to endothelial cells and hence to vascular stability and function. In addition, we used a computational model developed by Prof. [Roded Sharan of the Blavatnik School of Computer Science] which allowed us to assess and identify which coronavirus proteins have the greatest effect on other tissues, without having seen them ‘in action’ in the lab.”

According to Dr. Maoz, the identification of these proteins may have significant consequences in the fight against the virus. “Our research could help find targets for a drug that will be used to stop the virus’s activity, or at least minimize damage to blood vessels.”

The study was led by Dr. Ben Maoz of the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Sagol School of Neuroscience, Prof. Uri Ashery of The George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences and Sagol School of Neuroscience, and Prof. Roded Sharan of the Blavatnik School of Computer Science – all Tel Aviv University researchers. Also participating in the study were Dr. Rossana Rauti, Dr. Yael Bardoogo and doctoral student Meishar Shahoah of Tel Aviv University, and Prof. Yaakov Nahmias of the Institute of Life Sciences at the Hebrew University. The results of the new study were published in the journal eLife.

Featured: Illustration of Coronavirus in blood vessel

From Law and Education to Nursing

Number of TAU academics transferring to nursing tripled following Corona crisis.

While our health care system is struggling to keep up with the pressure, hundreds of graduates from the Department of Nursing at The Stanley Steyer School of Health Professions will soon join the efforts against the pandemic and can become a significant reinforcement for the health system and society in general.

Covid-induced Boost in Appreciation 

New data from Tel Aviv University shows there has been a 50% increase in nursing students over the last two years, up from 223 students in 2019 to 327 students in 2021.

Moreover, the number of academics who decided to transfer to the nursing profession has tripled from 39 in 2019 to 102 in 2021. According to the Department of Nursing, the boost is mainly a result of the appreciation for the work of nurses during the Corona crisis.

Academics who have chosen to convert to nursing come from a variety of disciplines, including: law, education, psychology and behavioral sciences.

Job Security and Professional Satisfaction

Dr. Michal Itzhaki, Chair of the Department of Nursing, welcomes the increase, describing the incoming academics as “a high-quality workforce, which has recalculated a route following a desire for job security, managerial promotion and professional satisfaction, and which we are happy to welcome.”

“Academic nurses are engaged in a critical and vital profession, which significance has intensified in the past year and a half. Nursing students see their studies as a mission, based on the highest level of professionalism, humanity and concern for others. We’re proud of every graduate who goes on to integrate into the workforce.”

Dr. Anat Amit Aharon, Head of the Academic Transfer Program, adds: “In the retraining studies in the department, we work closely with two leading Israeli hospitals, Sheba and Ichilov. Together, we guide the students to academic excellence. Our graduates all made a brave decision, sometimes after successful careers, to transition to study nursing. They deserve appreciation.”

COVID-19 Immunity Varies Among Genders and Age Groups

TAU researchers contribute a new piece to the puzzle on the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccination.

As experts continue to learn more about immune responses to COVID-19 and the effectiveness of vaccines, researchers from Tel Aviv University have contributed a new piece to the puzzle. A joint study conducted by researchers from TAU and the Shamir Medical Center (Assaf Harofe) indicates that the level of antibodies changes according to age groups, gender, symptoms, and time elapsed since vaccination. The findings are the latest from the researchers in a series of studies aimed at providing reliable measures on the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccination.

The new study examined the level of antibodies in over 26,000 blood samples taken from COVID-19 convalescents, as well as vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.

In vaccinated individuals, the researchers found differences between women and men in the concentration of antibodies in the blood relative to both age and gender. In women, the level of antibodies begins to rise from the age of 51, and is higher than the levels found in men of similar age. This phenomenon may be related change in levels of the estrogen hormone, observed around this age, which affects the immune system. In men, a rise in antibody levels is seen at an earlier age, starting around 35, and may be related to changes in levels of testosterone and the effect on the immune system.

In young adults, a high concentration of antibodies generally signals a strong healthy functioning immune response, while in older demographics it typically indicates overreaction of the immune system associated with severe illness. In general, young adults were found to have a higher level of antibodies sustained for a longer period of time compared to older vaccinated persons. The findings further validate existing evidence that, depending on age, higher antibody count isn’t necessarily equivalent to higher rates of recovery.

Furthermore, the study found that the immune response of vaccinated individuals (after two doses) is much stronger than that of people who have recovered from COVID-19. The findings show that vaccinated individuals have four times the level of antibodies compared to convalescents.

The study was conducted by Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Noam Shomron, Head of the Computational Genomics Laboratory at the Sackler Faculty of Medicine and a member of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Bioinformatics and Dr. Adina Bar Chaim from the Shamir Medical Center. The data were collected by Dr. Ramzia Abu Hamad from the Shamir Medical Center, and analysis was conducted by Guy Shapira, a PhD student at Prof. Shomron’s laboratory. The study was published in Medrxiv

New study found differences between women and men in the level of COVID-19 antibodies

Prof. Noam Shomron, Head of the Computational Genomics Laboratory at the Sackler Faculty of Medicine and a member of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Bioinformatics

A joint study conducted by researchers from Tel Aviv University and the Shamir Medical Center (Asaf Harofe) examined the level of antibodies in over 26,000 blood samples taken from COVID-19 convalescents, as well as vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. The serological results indicate that the level of antibodies changes according to age groups, gender, symptoms, and time elapsed since vaccination. The study was published in Medrxiv.

A difference was found between vaccinated women and men, in the concentration of antibodies in the blood relative to both age and gender. In women, the level of antibodies begins to rise from the age of 51, and is higher than the levels found in men of similar age. This phenomenon may be related change in levels of the estrogen hormone, observed around this age, which affects the immune system. In men, a rise in antibody levels is seen at an earlier age, starting around 35. This may be related to changes in levels of the male sex hormone testosterone, and the effect on the immune system.

In young adults, a high concentration of antibodies is usually the result of a strong immune response, while in older people it typically indicates overreaction of the immune system associated with severe illness.

Dr. Adina Bar Chaim from the Shamir Medical Center

Main trends and findings:

  1. The immune response of individuals who have received two doses of the vaccine is much stronger than that of people who have recovered from COVID-19. In fact, the level of antibodies found in the blood of vaccinated persons was 4 times higher than that found in convalescents.
  2. A difference was found between convalescent males and females – in antibody concentration in the blood relative to both age and gender. In women, the concentration begins to rise from the age of 51, and it is higher than the levels found in men of similar age. This phenomenon may be related to the change in levels of the estrogen hormone, observed around this age, which affects the immune system. In men, a rise in antibody levels is seen at an earlier age, starting around 35. This may be related to changes in levels of the male sex hormone testosterone, and its effect on the immune system.

In young adults, a high concentration of antibodies is usually the result of a strong immune response, while in older people it usually indicates overreaction of the immune system associated with severe illness.

  1. In general, young adults were found to have a higher level of antibodies sustained for a longer period of time compared to older vaccinated persons. A decrease of tens of percent was observed over time between the younger and very old age groups.

Conclusion: Further research is required in order to obtain an in-depth understanding of the immune system’s response to COVID-19, to recovery from the disease, and to the vaccine. We hope that in the future we will be able to supply a reliable measure for the effectiveness of vaccination, correlated with age, gender and symptoms.

The study was conducted by Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Noam Shomron, Head of the Computational Genomics Laboratory at the Sackler Faculty of Medicine and a member of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Bioinformatics and Dr. Adina Bar Chaim from the Shamir Medical Center. The data were collected by Dr. Ramzia Abu Hamad from the Shamir Medical Center, and analysis was conducted by Guy Shapira, a PhD student at Prof. Shomron’s laboratory.

Continue reading

How Will We Brave the Post-COVID Era?

TAU’s Dr. Bruria Adini spoke to TAU Review about mental health, resilience and hope in the post-Corona world.

By Melanie Takefman Dr. Bruria Adina, head of the Emergency and Disaster Management Program at TAU’s School of Public Health, Sackler Faculty of Medicine, and TAU’s Center for Combating Pandemics, has been measuring Israelis’ resilience for years, both during “routine times” and crises. When COVID-19 broke in March 2020, Adini and her team surveyed a sample group of Israelis regarding their mental well-being. They continued to do so every 2-3 months to evaluate their levels of distress, depression and anxiety as well as individual, community and national resilience.

How has COVID-19 affected Israelis’ mental health?

It affected them in almost every facet of their lives. Until October 2020, the rates of distress rose significantly—both anxiety and depression. We got to the point where one in five people had high levels of depression, and one in three had high levels of anxiety. All three levels of resilience—individual, community and national—dropped through much of the first year of COVID-19. Then, in January 2021, we saw a small increase in community and national resilience, most probably a result of the vaccination campaign. We can explain this by the fact that the vaccination campaign offered hope that things will get better. People felt that the country was standing by their side. The authorities were doing something. At the same time, there was a substantial decrease in individual resilience. People didn’t feel the vaccination campaign was impacting their lives yet. They were still stuck at home. They didn’t know what was going to happen with their children’s education. They were still experiencing economic instability.  

How has resilience varied with age?

We expected to see the highest threat and the lowest resilience among the elderly population, because we heard that they were the most at risk and COVID-19 could be lethal for them. But what we found was the opposite. It was the younger populations, aged 31-40, who showed the lowest level of resilience and the highest levels of stress, anxiety and perceived threat. The younger people felt the most impact economically because they are the backbone of the workforce, while those who live on pensions were less affected. This younger group also worried about the impact of the pandemic on their children, as the school system was closed. In addition, we found that the resilience of university and college students was lower than that of the average population. Their distress and anxiety levels were higher, as was a perceived threat to their academic success. In addition, many of them lost jobs in the industries that were shut down during the pandemic, such as restaurants and bars.

How can governments help people be more resilient during a pandemic?

Transparency is key to the management of any emergency. Having a clear and unified message is also important. If you enable open dialogue, authorities can provide information that the public needs in a way that builds trust. In other words, the government needs to make the public part of the solution, to make them a partner and to empower them. For example, the government and other bodies can invite the public to relay what is happening on the ground. In this way, citizens can have an impact on policy and crisis response. On the flipside, we saw that messaging that inspired fear among the populace worked only for a short time. Also, the threat of cash fines didn’t convince people to follow the guidelines, such as wearing masks. What does have an impact is helping people understand how their behavior will impact those they care about—their community, family members and so on. During the pandemic, we also saw fruitful connections between academia and decision-makers. We provided data and evidence of what the public feels, which they could take into consideration in determining policy. We collaborated with the Ministries of Health, Social Equality and Welfare.

Some people think that the next pandemic will be a mental health pandemic. Do you agree with this statement?

If you’re asking me is this pandemic going to have long-term mental health repercussions, the answer is certainly yes. No type of adversity or pandemic is singular. The health risk caused economic instability. The economic instability created political instability. Mental health impacts your ability to function, your ability to function impacts your economic situation, your economic situation impacts your mental health, your self-confidence, your certainty of what the future holds, and so on. So it’s not only about mental health; it affects our economy and society as well.

What are the main lessons that COVID-19 has taught us?

Even when we need to make drastic changes in our lives, we have the power to overcome and continue to function. For example, the education system closed and distance learning was a severe blow but in academia, for example, we didn’t miss one day of teaching. We switched to Zoom, and that’s going to impact online learning in the years to come. We saw the same concerning the economy. People worked from home. I think the pandemic led to some positive insights, and these are becoming clearer as time passes. We’re going to see that our society can make the necessary modifications to improve our way of life. That’s the exact definition of resilience: To adapt to what is happening and still try to bounce forward. Featured image: Dr. Bruria Adina, head of TAU’s Emergency and Disaster Management Program

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
 

Victoria

Tok Corporate Centre, Level 1,
459 Toorak Road, Toorak VIC 3142
Phone: +61 3 9296 2065
Email: office@aftau.asn.au

New South Wales

P.O. Box 4044, Maroubra South,
NSW 2035
Phone: +61 418 465 556
Email: davidsolomon@aftau.org.au

Western Australia

P O Box 36, Claremont,
WA  6010
Phone: :+61 411 223 550
Email: clivedonner@thelinqgroup.com