A Covid-19 testing booth enables medical workers in Tel Aviv to collect samples without exposing themselves to the virus. Photo: Jack Guez / AFP

At the time of writing, the United States has the highest number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in the world, so it is important not to dismiss the idea of scrutinizing the extent to which the US may have contributed to the spread of the virus to other parts of the globe.

President Donald Trump and his hawkish secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, have preferred to demonize China and blackmail the World Health Organization rather than taking a prudent stance in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr Adi Stern and her team of researchers at the School of Molecular Cell Biology and Biotechnology at Tel Aviv University’s George S Wise Faculty of Life Sciences, discovered that 70% of infected Israelis had a SARS CoV-2 variant that originated in the US.

TAU’s study was based on an analysis of the genomic sequences of more than 200 patients in Israeli hospitals and comparing them to sequenced genomes from 4,700 patients in other countries. It was published on Monday on the medRxiv.org website.

What is particularly interesting about the study is that the research found hardly any infections having been imported to Israel from China, South Korea or Singapore.

Stern states that the study was conducted over approximately two months “so from the very beginning [of the outbreak of the pandemic in Israel], from some of the earliest patients until late April.”

Israel’s first confirmed case of Covid-19 was recorded on February 21, three weeks after the country started restricting travel from Asia and closing its borders to tourists while implementing mandatory quarantines for travelers. Flights from Europe were also restricted early on, but not from the US.

“There was a delay in policy. Flights from Europe were stopped between February 26 and March 4 and all travelers had to be quarantined, but flights from the US were only stopped on March 9,” Stern explained.

She added that “returning travelers from the US contributed more to the spread of the virus in Israel than those from Europe.” Closing the borders to flights from Europe, the academic continued, “worked really well as we saw very few transmission chains from there.”

Another significant finding was that more than 80% of Covid-19 infections in Israel were the direct result of just 10% of “super-spreaders.” That means only 800 people were responsible for four out of five Israeli infections.

“Some of the clusters of sequences in the data that we saw were 100% identical, and this tells us that there were some super-spreaders,” Stern said, at the same time suggesting that the super-spreading may have occurred at events such as weddings and other social gatherings.

What is also interesting about the study is that “the novel coronavirus is characterized by mutations that occur at a set pace,” Stern said in a university statement. “These mutations do not affect the virus, ie it remains stable, but these mutations can help us trace the chain of infection from country to country.

“Going forward, the data obtained from genomic sequencing will serve as an important basis for informed decisions about which institutions to close, for what amount of time, and in which format,” she argued.

“In our study, we performed the first massive genomic sequencing of the coronavirus in Israel,” Stern said. “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 research can greatly help policymakers on issues such as closures and quarantines.

“Policymakers can use the study to focus on [preventive] efforts against a second wave of the virus,” she concluded.

Stern said no more than 1% of the population in Israel had contracted the virus – a far cry from herd immunity.

As this case shows, early on in the Covid-19 pandemic, Israel banned flights from nearly every country except one – the United States, which may well have turned out to be a monumental mistake.

As of May 21, there were 16,659 cases of Covid-19 reported in Israel, with 278 having died from the disease, according to figures collated by Johns Hopkins University.

Interestingly, it was not long ago that Trump had the nerve to tag the pandemic as the “China virus.” As the tables have now turned on the US, it’s clear many Israelis now have legitimate grounds to tag Covid-19 as the “American virus.”

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Adriel Kasonta

Adriel Kasonta is a London-based foreign affairs analyst and commentator. He is the founder of AK Consultancy and editorial board member at the peer-reviewed Central European Journal of International and Security Studies (CEJISS) in Prague. Kasonta is a former chairman of the International Affairs Committee at Bow Group, the oldest conservative think tank in the UK.