May 30, 2020

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04/08 Links Pt1: Israeli COVID-19 treatment shows 100% survival rate; 7 more virus deaths bring toll to 72; In New York, the Distance Between Life and Death Grows Shorter

From Ian:

7 more virus deaths bring toll to 72; 10 are from Beersheba elder care facility
Israel reported seven new deaths from the coronavirus Wednesday, bringing the number of fatalities in the country from COVID-19 to 72.

At Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba, a 97-year-old man and a 96-year-old man died.

According to Hebrew media reports, the two were residents of the Mishan assisted living facility in the southern city, raising the number of people from there who died of the virus to 10.

Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv announced the death of two men, a 77 and 75-year-old.

Another victim, a 67-year-old woman, had numerous preexisting conditions, according to Rambam Medical Center. Her husband was also sick and hospitalized elsewhere, though it was unclear from reports whether he also was infected with the virus.

The other fatality was a 85-year-old man being treated at HaEmek Medical Center in the northern city of Afula.

The man, who suffered from preexisting diseases, was a resident of the Yokra assisted living facility in the northern town of Yavne’el. He was the third resident of the facility to die, the Ynet news site reported.

The seventh fatality was a 90-year-old woman who died at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center.

In New York, the Distance Between Life and Death Grows Shorter

For the city’s Jews, community has become a source of both danger and protection. Crown Heights, Williamsburg, and Borough Park are places where everyone knows and sees everyone else. “You can look at it as one big giant family that lost so many members,” Labin says of his neighborhood. For many, daily life is organized around spending time with a group of at least 10 people three times a day. The coronavirus preys on such tightknit places, and yet cohesion is also a line of defense. In Crown Heights, an organization of local Jewish medical professionals set up a help line early in the crisis and has now conducted an extensive survey tracking the virus’ impact among the area’s Chabad Hasidim.

March and April are the giving season in religious communities—charitable fundraising drives are often built around the upcoming Passover holiday. In every neighborhood, there are existing volunteer and charitable organizations, many of which are now under intense strain. The economic crisis means that former donors are now recipients. In a normal year everyone would give something if they could, as Alex Rapaport, director of the Masbia soup kitchen explained. Rapaport mentioned a neighbor of his who installs kitchen equipment for a living and is usually busy in the runup to Passover. The coronavirus has effectively put him out of work. “Last year he gave to the Pesach campaigns. This year he’s on line at the soup kitchens.” Rapaport says that demand for Masbia’s services is at roughly five times its normal levels and that the organization is distributing $100,000 worth of food every day, much of it to people who aren’t Jewish. “We’re actually giving matzo to people in seven different languages. There are lots of immigrants on line from many different countries of the world, and they can have matzo for the first time.”

Masbia will halt distributions over Passover. By then, Rapaport says, “There isn’t going to be a single piece of food in our facility.”

Supply isn’t Rapaport’s biggest problem, though—it’s labor. People are getting sick at a time when additional assistance is required to scale up operations. A shrinking pool of workers and volunteers is an issue throughout Jewish charitable organizations. The need is increasing while capacity rapidly contracts.

“Right now, our volunteers are at a very low number,” says Goldie Deutsch, coordinator for the Satmar Bikur Cholim of Borough Park. In normal times, Bikur Cholim maintains stockpiles of free kosher food and other such supplies in New York-area hospitals. Now that hospitals are closed to visitors, Deutsch and her volunteers have mostly been delivering food to coronavirus patients and their families. They are struggling to keep up. “We get a lot of phone calls for shiva houses,” says Deutsch. “People are sitting shiva and they need food. People are overwhelmed, but we have to use a thousand-times bigger word than overwhelmed … We feel helpless. And in our organization we were taught from our cradle: Never say no. No matter where we are financially, we can never say no. “

One organization that has seen an especially wrenching jump in need is Links, which assists children in the Orthodox community who have lost a parent. Last week, Sarah Rivkah Kohn, the organization’s Borough Park-based founder and director, explained that 21 new families had approached her group in the previous 10 days, which is the number it would see during a typical four-to-five-month period. Since the crisis began, Kohn has conducted Zoom video sessions with preschool-age kids and received phone calls from children who got her number second- or third-hand.

“This kind of grieving is a very different kind of grieving,” Kohn explained. There’s the enormity of the disaster, suddenness of the disease, and the cruel impossibility of a normal shiva and funeral. “There is a sense that this just spun out of control so quickly, so fast. My father or my mother were just here, and now they’re not.” Kohn anticipates that her organization’s budgeting for therapy will have to dramatically increase, although the impact of the crisis is too vast to measure right now. “It’s a very unique and different kind of loss … It’s just something where we don’t have the answers yet.”

Morocco’s Tiny Jewish Community Hit Hard by Coronavirus, With 11 Dead

Morocco’s tiny Jewish community has taken a major hit from the coronavirus pandemic, with 11 members from the community of less than 2,000 people dying of the disease so far.

Most of Morocco’s once-thriving Jewish population fled the country beginning in 1948, moving largely to Israel and France.

The Israeli news site N12 reported on Wednesday that the latest community member to be taken was Yemin Peretz, 74, who passed away on Tuesday at a hospital in Casablanca, a week after his wife Simone and son Ari died of the virus. Ari’s wife Pascal Peretz is also in serious condition and is on a respirator at a hospital.

The four victims are relatives of Israel’s Labor party leader Amir Peretz.

“The blows fall on us one after the other,” a member of the Casablanca Jewish community said. “Almost every day there is a funeral for someone from the community who died from corona.”

“We have not yet recovered from the death of Ari and Simone, and yesterday the father Yemin also passed away,” he added. “They were the mainstays of the community, contributed greatly and helped a multitude of people. We pray that Pascal will survive.”

“We’re also such a very small community,” he said.

It is believed that the heavy toll is the result of a large Purim party attended by hundreds of people who had also been at a wedding a few days before with a person infected with the coronavirus.

The president of the Jewish community sent a letter to all members telling them not to leave their homes during the Passover holiday.

Israeli COVID-19 treatment shows 100% survival rate – preliminary data

Six critically ill coronavirus patients in Israel who are considered high-risk for mortality have been treated with Pluristem’s placenta-based cell-therapy product and survived, according to preliminary data provided by the Haifa-based company.

The patients were treated at three different Israeli medical centers for one week under the country’s compassionate use program and were suffering from acute respiratory failure and inflammatory complications associated with COVID-19. Four of the patients also demonstrated failure of other organ systems, including cardiovascular and kidney failure.

Not only have all the patients survived, according to Pluristem, but four of them showed improvement in respiratory parameters and three of them are in the advanced stages of weaning from ventilators. Moreover, two of the patients with preexisting medical conditions are showing clinical recovery in addition to the respiratory improvement.

“We are pleased with this initial outcome of the compassionate use program and committed to harnessing PLX cells for the benefit of patients and healthcare systems,” said Pluristem CEO and president Yaky Yanay. “Pluristem is dedicated to using its competitive advantages in large-scale manufacturing to potentially deliver PLX cells to a large number of patients in significant need.”

Pluristem’s PLX cells are “allogeneic mesenchymal-like cells that have immunomodulatory properties,” meaning they induce the immune system’s natural regulatory T cells and M2 macrophages, the company explained in a previous release. The result could be the reversal of dangerous overactivation of the immune system. This would likely reduce the fatal symptoms of pneumonia and pneumonitis (general inflammation of lung tissue).

The Origin of the COVID-19 Outbreak in Wuhan

After the exponential growth in coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) infections, it is no surprise that the internet is full to the brim with all sorts of conspiracy theories regarding its origin. Strong claims often trigger similarly strong responses, such as accusations by conspiracy theorists of malicious intent and claims that the virus could not have been leaked from a laboratory. Loud voices from both sides overshadow calls to investigate a spectrum of plausible scenarios.

Recent studies suggested that the virus is not bioengineered. However, bioweapons and genetically engineered viruses are not equivalent, as the latter are used in peaceful applications in order to understand potential threats in the environment. These include studying the natural gain of function that happens in nature as viruses evolve or recombine, and their potential for use in drug delivery and vaccine development. On the other hand, a bioweapon used by a nonstate actor (i.e., a bioterrorist) could be an entirely natural virus, although a malicious state might be likely to seek a more effective weapon through bioengineering.

Given the novelty of SARS-CoV-2, it’s unlikely to be a bioweapon. Recent research suggests that the virus is likely natural in origin, although the immediate natural reservoir of the virus is yet to be identified. Additionally, it would seem improbable that a bioterrorist would use an unknown natural virus as a weapon, unless they were involved in experiments that ascertained that such a virus or one of its ancestors could effectively bond to human receptors and efficiently infect human cells.

Coronaviruses, as well as flu and other viruses that pose a moderate health hazard, are studied at biosafety level 2, which is not very strict, with protective equipment only worn as needed. It is unclear whether SARS-CoV-2 was known to any of the Chinese virology labs before the outbreak, but its close relatives, like RaTG13, have been known and studied since 2013.

Contrary to the preponderance of recent media claims, studies that aim to trace the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 are not conducted with the intent to verify whether the virus is a bioweapon or not, but rather contribute toward identifying its natural reservoir. It is important to understand how the virus jumped from animals to humans, as this might happen again with the same or a different strain. By identifying related viruses, researchers also inform other studies that work toward identifying known molecules that may inhibit bonding between the virus’ S protein and human protein receptors, or even ones that could potentially block the RdRp binding pocket. This could help identify drugs that could cure the disease or inhibit infection.

Recently, the authors of a much-reported-on Nature Medicine correspondence expressed their personal beliefs and speculations at the end of the correspondence. This is rather unusual in research, where only supported facts are typically presented. The authors stated: “Since we observed all notable SARS-CoV-2 features, including the optimized RBD and polybasic cleavage site, in related coronaviruses in nature, we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”

This conclusion is a logical leap and an unsupported generalization. There is no doubt that the correspondence provided useful analysis of the mutations from RaTG13, which was found in another study to exhibit 96% similarity to SARS-CoV-2. This 96% similarity suggests that SARS-CoV-2 is related to RaTG13, although the 4% could account for significant functional differences. The nature of the mutations suggests a natural origin of the virus but doesn’t prove that a laboratory-based scenario is impossible, as the authors then claimed. A lab scenario may involve either a fully natural virus that is related to SARS-CoV 2, or even a chimeric virus which could have acquired random mutations due to being released into the environment a long time ago.

Israel’s Emergency Unity Government Amid a Public Health Crisis | SWUConnect #11

Join our StandWithUs Connect webinar with Lahav Harkov, Senior Contributing Editor and Diplomatic Correspondent at The Jerusalem Post, entitled “Israel’s Emergency Unity Government Amid a Public Health Crisis.”

Everything you need to know about Israel’s new government: Learn the latest on Israeli politics—how it looks like Israel will break out of its endless election cycle and what the coronavirus has to do with it.

Netanyahu: I’m willing to negotiate captives’ release with Hamas

Israel is willing to negotiate with Hamas through intermediaries to secure the release of soldiers’ bodies and civilians in Hamas captivity in Gaza, the Prime Minister’s Office said on Tuesday.

“The coordinator for captives and missing people, Yaron Bloom, and his staff, together with the National Security Council and the defense establishment, are prepared to act constructively with a goal to return the bodies and missing people and end this matter, and call for an immediate discussion through intermediaries,” the Prime Minister’s Office statement read.

Hamas has held the bodies of IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since Operation Protective Edge in 2014, and has civilians Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed in captivity.

The Prime Minister’s Office statement came a day after Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar offered a prisoner exchange.

Sinwar said on Friday that he is “ready to make partial concessions on our prisoners issue in exchange for Israel’s release of elderly prisoners, patients and female prisoners as a humanitarian gesture in light of the coronavirus crisis,” according to Al-Monitor.

A Hamas official told KAN that Israel did not respond in any way, and posited that Netanyahu does not want to deal with the matter.

Hamas: We are flexible on a prisoner swap with Israel

Hamas said on Tuesday that it was willing to be “flexible” regarding a prisoner exchange with Israel, adding that the ball was now in the Israeli court.

Earlier this week, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar indicated his group’s readiness to make concessions in order to reach a prisoner swap deal with Israel.

Hamas, he said, was prepared to make a “partial concession” on the issue in return for the release of elderly, female and minor prisoners held in Israeli prisons, in the context of a humanitarian initiative in light of the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sinwar said that the indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel over a prisoner exchange were suspended after the start of the political crisis in Israel.

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said on Tuesday that his group “affirms the initiative made by its leader, Yahya Sinwar, regarding the release of the Israelis it is holding in the Gaza Strip in return for the release of a number of Palestinian prisoners, particularly women, the elderly and minors.

“Hamas will deal in a responsible manner with any real response to this initiative,” Qassem said.

In response to Sinwar’s remark, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement that Israel is open to negotiations on a prisoner release with Hamas.

Khaled Abu Toameh: Hamas: A New Pretext to Attack Israel

Instead of offering to cooperate with Israel in the battle against coronavirus, Hamas is now seeking to divert attention from its failed policies by threatening to kill Jews for not helping the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Instead of asking for Israel’s help, Hamas leaders have informed the State of Israel: “Help us or we will kill six million Jews.”

That is what Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar said during an interview on April 2 with a Hamas-affiliated TV station: “If ventilators are not brought to Gaza [by Israel],” he warned, “we will take them by force from Israel and stop the breathing of six million settlers.”

Sinwar neglected to mention that in the past week, Israel dispatched hundreds of coronavirus test kits to medical personnel in the Gaza Strip.

He also forgot to mention that it was Israeli doctors who saved his life when he had brain surgery to remove a tumor while he was serving time in Israeli prison for murdering several Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel.

The brain surgery and the time he spent in Israeli prison has taught Sinwar that Israel has one of the best medical systems in the Middle East. That is probably why he now wants Israel to help the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

One might ask: What have Sinwar and other Hamas leaders done to help their hospitals and people in the past 12 years?

Hamas has been serving as the de facto government in the Gaza Strip since its violent takeover of the coastal enclave in 2007. As such, Hamas is responsible for managing the affairs of the two million Palestinians living under its rule, including their medical services.

Sinwar and his friends in the Hamas leadership evidently had more urgent things on its their agenda than handling healthcare issues in the Gaza Strip.

They evidently did not have the time to deal with such issues. They were busy digging tunnels along the border with Israel to enable Hamas to infiltrate Israel and kill Israelis. They did not have the time to inquire about the needs of the Gaza Strip hospitals: they were manufacturing rockets, mortars and drones. They were also busy smuggling weapons through the border with Egypt would later be used to attack Israel.

Coronavirus in Turkey: Government Targets Doctors

Turkey’s coronavirus death toll climbed to 649, Turkey’s health minister announced on April 6.

However, medical experts in Turkey who have called on people to take more precautions or who have criticized the government for mishandling the virus crisis have been silenced by authorities.

Two physicians have been made to apologize after giving information about the threat of the coronavirus, and two others have been summoned to appear at police headquarters for statements they made to the media.

Yet, according to a report by Oxford University, the number of coronavirus cases in Turkey is growing at a faster pace than infections did during the same phase in other countries.

Germany allows US sanctioned Iranian ‘terror’ banks to operate

The organization United Against Nuclear Iran published a report on Tuesday, disclosing that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government is permitting Iranian banks sanctioned by the US government to operate within the federal republic.

“The oldest Iranian bank operating in Germany is Bank Melli, established in 1965 in Hamburg. It is also Iran’s national bank, wholly owned by the Government of Iran (GOI), and its biggest company by revenue. The US Treasury sanctioned Bank Melli in 2018 for its support of the IRGC, having enabled the IRGC and its affiliates to move funds inside and outside Iran,” wrote the report’s author, Daniel Roth.

The Trump administration designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist entity.

The UANI report further noted: “Also in Hamburg is Bank Sepah, another state-owned sanctioned bank tied to Iran’s Ministry of Defense (MODAFL). Bank Sepah has provided ‘direct and extensive financial services’ to Iran’s key ballistic missiles procurement and development agencies, including Aerospace Industries Organization (AIO) and its subsidiary, Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group (SHIG).”

UANI continued: “The third Hamburg-based bank and perhaps most notorious of all is the European Iranian Handelsbank (EIH). Unlike the others, EIH is in fact incorporated and headquartered in Germany, with branches in Tehran and Kish Island. Since its founding in 1971, it has financed billions of dollars of German-Iranian trade and is majority-owned by the sanction-designated Iranian state-owned bank, Bank of Industry and Mine.”

The report said that “The US Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FINCEN) has named EIH as a money-laundering threat, having assisted several of Iran’s top military and defense agencies, including the IRGC, the Defense Industries Organization (DIO) and AIO.”

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