Israeli students wearing facemasks and keeping social distance on May 3, 2020 in Jerusalem. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

New research suggests the most important factor for decreasing mortality is how quickly social-distancing measures are implemented.

By Brian Blum, ISRAEL21c

As many countries confront a resurgence of Covid-19 infection, Israel has chosen the lockdown direction. Parts of Australia – Melbourne in particular – have been under coronavirus restrictions since the beginning of August. Regions of France, Spain and the UK have reintroduced partial lockdowns as well.

New research from Tel Aviv University based on mobility data collected from iPhone users and published this week in preprint form on the website medRxiv argues that rigorous lockdowns may not save lives.

The authors say the most important factor for decreasing mortality (number of deaths) –as opposed to morbidity, the number of infections — is how quickly social-distancing measures are implemented.

They found no statistical correlation between the severity of a lockdown and the number of Covid-19 fatalities in the country.

“We would have expected to see fewer Covid-19 fatalities in countries with a tighter lockdown, but the data reveals that this is not the case,” the researchers explain.

“Mobility data indicates that a hermetic lockdown, in which everyone must stay at home, is unnecessary,” said Prof. Tal Pupko, head of the Shmunis School of Biomedicine and Cancer Research, and Prof. Itay Mayrose of TAU’s Faculty of Life Sciences. “What we need is fast implementation of social distancing.”

Pupko and Mayrose looked at iPhone data showing the extent of mobility — the average number of citizens traveling by vehicle –on a specific day in each of the OECD countries studied. They then adjusted that data to the size of the population and typical mobility patterns in that country.

There was an all-around decrease in mobility starting in March. However, what was important was the date on which a country implemented social-distancing measures.

For example, mobility data indicates that the time it took to respond to the pandemic and the severity of the lockdown were similar in Israel and the Czech Republic. However, even though Israel’s lockdown was longer than that in Czechia, the two countries’mortality rates remained similar.

Another example: The lockdown in Spain was longer and tighter than the French closure, but when both ended, mortality rates in the two countries were about the same, since both started social distancing at around the same time.

A delay of 7.49 days in introducing social-distancing measures doubled mortality, the researchers discovered.

“Israel could have reached the same mortality rate with a lockdown that was less economically and socially lethal – in the first round and probably in the present outbreak as well,” the scientists say.

“Countries that responded quickly with social-distancing measures – not necessarily with a tight lockdown – ultimately emerged from the first outbreak with better results. Even in Sweden, a country that never imposed a lockdown, we can see that the early decrease in mobility, starting in March, was manifested in the mortality rate.”

The researchers note that their study “is based purely on observations and does not relate to the premises of any existing epidemiological model.”

Gil Loewenthal, Shiran Abadi, Oren Avram, Keren Halabi, Noa Ecker and Nathan Nagar of TAU’s Faculty of Life Sciences also participated in the research. The paper has been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication in the journal EMBO Molecular Medicine.