New TAU Study Tracks Coronavirus Spread Patterns in Israel

A team of researchers from Tel Aviv University led by Dr. Adi Stern from the Faculty of Biology and Molecular Cell Biotechnology at the George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences has carried out the first large-scale genomic sequencing of the new strain of coronavirus that has infected more than 16,500 people in Israel to date.

The scientists took advantage of their genomic map to identify mutations that indicate where the virus originated and then spread within Israel. The study is based on an analysis of the genomic sequences of more than 200 patients in hospitals across Israel, who together constitute a representative sample of the general population.

TAU doctoral students Daniel Miller, Noam Harel, Talia Kostin, Omer Tirosh, and Moran Meir conducted the research for the study in collaboration with scientists from Emory University, Gertner Institute, Chaim Sheba Medical Center, Holon Institute of Technology. , Assuta Ashdod Hospital, Hadassah Ein Karem Medical Center, Soroka Medical Center, Barzilai Medical Center, Poriya Medical Center, and Genome Center at the Technion Institute of Technology.

The origins of the coronavirus.
“The new coronavirus is characterized by mutations that occur at a set rate,” explains Dr. Stern. “These mutations do not affect the virus, that is, it remains stable, but they can help us trace the chain of infection from one country to another. After the pandemic broke out in Wuhan, for example, one or two mutations and a virus occurred. with a mutation it may have migrated to Europe where it underwent additional mutations, and from there it traveled to the United States, and so on.

“We can see these mutations as a kind of barcode that helps us track the progression and transformation of the coronavirus as it moves from one country to another.” To get a clear picture of the origin of the infection in Israel, the researchers compared genomic sequences from local patients with some 4,700 genomic sequences taken from patients around the world. They found that more than 70% of the patients had been infected with a strain of coronavirus that originated in the U.S. The remaining 30% of the infections were imported from Europe and elsewhere: Belgium (8%), France (6 %), England (5%), Spain (3%), Italy (2%), Philippines (2%), Australia (2%) and Russia
(2%).

According to Dr. Stern, the new genomic map provides information on the precise spread of the new coronavirus within Israel. Until now, any assessment of the spread of infection was based on subjective parameters such as patient feedback. The new research may expose the infection rate in a home, an apartment building, a school, a neighborhood, and more. It will also provide early detection of super spreaders, people who travel everywhere and infect large numbers of people, and could even identify major events with the potential to trigger a widespread infection.

The importance of 10%
“In the future, the data obtained from genomic sequencing will serve as an important basis for making informed decisions about which institutions to close, for how long, and in what format,” says Dr. Stern. With policy makers in mind, the researchers developed a complex statistical model based on genomic sequencing that estimates the epidemiological parameters of viral spread.

The model shows that the infection rate dropped significantly after the strict quarantine measures taken in Israel and highlights a large discrepancy between the number of people infected by each coronavirus patient. The model also estimates that more than 80% of coronavirus cases in Israel were the direct result of only 10% of coronavirus patients in Israel, meaning that this 10% were, in fact, super-spreaders. Based on the model and genomic sequence, Dr. Stern says that no more than 1% of the population in Israel contracted the virus, a far cry from herd immunity.

“In our study, we performed the first massive genomic sequencing of the coronavirus in Israel,” he concludes. “This technology and the information it provides is of great importance for understanding the virus and its spread in the population, as a scientific and objective basis for local and national decision-making. The data obtained from the investigation can greatly assist those in charge. policy-making on issues such as closures and quarantines. By doing so, the study makes a significant contribution to tackling the epidemic in Israel and, most importantly, we have developed tools that will allow us to deal, in real time, with next outbreak that may occur. “

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