Israel warns COVID not over

The Delta strain of the coronavirus has not been eliminated and may return.

By Erin Viner

This, according to researchers at the Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev published in the peer-reviewed journal Science of the Total Environment.

The study was led by said Prof. Ariel Kushmaro and Dr. Karin Yaniv, who along with their team are part of the School of Sustainability and Climate Change and the Avram and Stella Goldstein-Goren Department of Biotechnology Engineering. Contributing researchers include Dr. Eden Ozer and Marilou Shagan of the Bgu and Dr. Yossi Paitan from Ilex Labs, in research supported by the BGU Coronavirus Challenge and the Israeli Ministry of Health.

Whereas the study found that Delta eradicated preceding COVID-19 variants that had preceded it, Omicron did not eliminate Delta,

The conclusions follow development of standards to differentiate variants from each other in wastewater, where coronavirus activity levels can be detected even amid dropping rates of infections.

The university lab discovered “the disturbing interaction between the Omicron and Delta variants” during analysis of sewage from the southern city of Beersheba between December 2021 to January 2022.  A model formulated with Prof. Rony Granek revealed that “Omicron is burning itself out while Delta is just biding its time,” said an Israeli government statement.

“Of course, there are a lot of factors involved, but our model indicates there could be another outbreak of Delta or another coronavirus variant this summer,” warns Prof. Kushmaro, according to the statement.

In related developments, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the United States National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the Chief Medical Advisor to the US President, praised another BGU research group for work on early detection of COVID strains.

Dr. Fauci expressed his appreciation in a letter, in which he thanked the Israeli team for “the critical contributions you and your team have made during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Your research has been incredibly important to the fast-paced pandemic response and has supported public health efforts around the world. I recognize that developing the tools and data needed to enable a rapid response to COVID-19 has required a strong work ethic and resilience, and that you have made incredible progress despite many unprecedented obstacles.”

Dr. Fauci went on to praise each member of the team, emphasizing that, “You are a leading example for both the infectious disease and broader biomedical research communities, and I am grateful for your unwavering commitment to global public health.”

Prof. Tomer Hertz and his students Liel Cohen-Lavi, Sinai Sacharen, Eilay Koren and Anat Burkovitz, conducted a study as part of the SARS-CoV-2 Assessment of Viral Evolution (SAVE) program at the NIAID, a part of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The comprehensive, real-time data produced by the NIH SAVE program facilitates rapid information-sharing with the scientific community, and allows rapid risk assessment and generation of informed recommendations on the COVID-19 pandemic to policymakers worldwide.

The Israeli researchers’ work was recently published Nature article.

“My students and I have been part of the early detection group that analyzes the viral sequence data. We have been generating monthly rankings of SARS-CoV-2 variants based on predictions of their escape from antibodies for the group for the last eight months. We are also part of the T-cell working group and have done lots of analysis on T-cell mediated immune pressure on the virus for this project,” said Prof. Hertz, who is a member of the National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev and the Shraga Segal Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Genetics in the Faculty of Health Sciences.

The SAVE program is composed of an international team of scientists with expertise in virology, immunology, vaccinology, structural biology, bioinformatics, viral genetics, and evolution. Its methodology serves as a template for the response against rapidly evolving pathogens and may also be useful in combating future pandemics.