TOI investigates

Behind PM-cited study showing Israel is safest place, a rabbit hole of weirdness

The strange saga and curious origins of research hyped by Netanyahu and seemingly confirmed by Forbes that purports to prove Israel tops the world’s COVID-19 ‘safety rankings’

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Prime Ministers Office in Jerusalem on March 25, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Prime Ministers Office in Jerusalem on March 25, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Since the end of March, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been trumpeting a study by the little-known “Deep Knowledge Group” that claims Israel is the safest country in the world in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Amid repeated efforts by journalists, scientists, politicians and concerned social media users to question and even debunk the study, Netanyahu has continued to cite it on prime-time television as well as on his official website and social media feed.

Not only does the study fail to reveal the data or methodology it used, but the people behind it also have strikingly unusual career histories. The Times of Israel has dug further into the founders of the “Deep Knowledge Group” and discovered a San Francisco-based medical expert with an extraordinary resumé who reportedly has run a firm offering private intelligence services to foreign governments; a failed Russian banker who advises the Moldovan president on the economy; and a bizarre Russian movement to prolong the human lifespan.

On March 31, Netanyahu posted a self-congratulatory statistic on his Facebook page, Twitter account and the official website of the Prime Minister’s Office. It featured a bar chart entitled “Coronavirus Health Safety Countries Ranking,” and showed Israel leading the world in countries where an individual could feel most safe during the coronavirus pandemic.

Critics quickly panned [Hebrew link] the study, correctly pointing out that while Israel is by no means the worst affected country in the world, there are many countries with a lower death rate per capita, a higher testing rate and better preparedness than Israel.

A chart prepared by the Deep Knowledge Group and posted on Netanyahu’s Facebook page on March 31, 2020 showing Israel as the world’s safest country during the coronavirus pandemic (Facebook)

The study itself did not explain its methodology or what data it relied on. It had come from the website of a firm called “Deep Knowledge Group that few people had ever heard of.

Netanyahu then cited the “safest” country ranking during at least two of his frequent appearances on national television when discussing the fight against COVID-19.

The Times of Israel published an article on April 8 revealing that Deep Knowledge Group was a Hong Kong investment capital firm owned by a Moscow- and London-based businessman named Dmitry Kaminskiy with business interests in the fintech, blockchain and “longevity” industries. In mid-2015, Kaminskiy bought the Russian “Interactive Bank” and announced in interviews in the Russian media that he would invest $1 billion in the bank to make it the best in the world using artificial intelligence technology. A year later, the bank was bankrupt and its license had been revoked.

Days later, Prof Yitzhak Ben-Israel, head of the Security Studies program at Tel Aviv University, derided (Hebrew link) the site’s findings as “the mother of fake news,” stressing that the rankings were not formal, official or credible.

Despite the many questions raised about Deep Knowledge Group’s study, Netanyahu cited it yet again, unwittingly or otherwise, when tweeting on April 15 that Forbes Magazine had now “also” proclaimed Israel to be the safest place in the world vis-a-vis the coronavirus.

A ‘world expert in her field’

In fact, the article Netanyahu tweeted about, which was published April 13, was written by an executive at the very same “Deep Knowledge Group” that had authored the March 30 study: Margaretta Colangelo, a San Francisco-based co-founder of Deep Knowledge Group with an impressive resumé that included membership in “Women Techmakers at Google.” Forbes subsequently made clear that it had not conducted any study of its own ranking countries’ safety in the battle against COVID-19.

Margaretta Colangelo, co-founder of Deep Knowledge Ventures (LinkedIn)

The article was labeled a “Forbes Contributor” submission. Forbes clarified [Hebrew link] on April 16 that this meant that “the [coronavirus] study was published by an external entity and is not a ranking produced by Forbes.”

A social media storm ensued, with Israeli supporters of Netanyahu claiming that the findings published in Forbes nevertheless come from a reputable and reliable source and that Forbes vetted its contributors, while detractors alleged that “Deep Knowledge Group” was a little-known entity that has managed to beef up its online presence through robust PR practices and that its findings lacked credibility and were repeatedly being hyped by Netanyahu to serve his own interests.

While some social media critics questioned Colangelo’s and DKG’s credibility, others rallied to her and her company’s defense.

“I work at Google, and the name Margaretta Colangelo does not come up in connection with our company,” wrote a Facebook poster on April 16.

Guy Levy, a public relations professional and former spokesman for acting Justice Minister Amir Ohana, shot back, “Are you in senior management? Because I assume if you are a programmer or even a team leader you would know nothing about Google’s work on public health issues.”

Levy also claimed in a viral April 15 post that the reputation and credentials of Deep Knowledge Group and Margaretta Colangelo should lay to rest any doubts about the validity of the study.

He added that Deep Knowledge Group “has partnered with scientists at Oxford and Cambridge universities.”

He said that Margaretta Colangelo “is a world expert in her field. She was manager of medical high-tech companies in Silicon Valley for 30 years and among other roles she sits on the board of directors or advises dozens of companies and leading international bodies in the field.”

A text message from Margaretta Colangelo to Israeli PR professional Guy Levy (Facebook)

A day later, Levy posted a text message he had received from Colangelo herself in which she enumerated her credentials, “Dmitry Kaminskiy and I have written over 100 articles on AI and DeepTech which have been published in Forbes, in MIT Technology Review Italia, Health Management Journal, Asian Robotics Review, The American Journal of Translational Medicine and Pharmaceutical Executive Magazine, and we publish 3 newsletters with over 25,000 subscribers on DeepTech, AI and FinTech,” he quoted Colangelo as saying. “I’m also on the Advisory Board of the AI Precision Health Institute at the University of Hawaii Cancer Center…and on the Advisory Board of the Longevity AI Consortium at King’s College London.”

A perusal of Colangelo’s LinkedIn profile reveals that a large number of the companies and organizations with which she is associated appear to be either subsidiaries or sister companies of Deep Knowledge Group, or startups or nonprofits that have been beneficiaries of its largesse.

Thus, according to Colangelo’s LinkedIn profile, she is the co-founder of Deep Knowledge Ventures, Longevity Capital, Longevity Bank, Aging Analytics Agency, and Deep Knowledge Analytics, all of which have overlapping owners and/or employees with Deep Knowledge Group.

Meanwhile, the Longevity AI Consortium at King’s College London, where she is an adviser, is funded by her own companies, Deep Knowledge Ventures and Aging Analytics Agency, among others.

A chart prepared by the Deep Knowledge Group still showing Israel as the world’s safest country during the coronavirus pandemic on April 7, 2020 (Screenshot)

The Biogerentology Research Foundation, a British nonprofit founded by Colangelo’s partner Kaminskiy, has sponsored joint activities with student clubs at Oxford and Cambridge universities, including the Oxford University Scientific Society, the Oxford Longevity Society and the Cambridge Longevity Society.

Colangelo did in fact publish an article, translated from her LinkedIn page, in MIT Technology Review Italia. Some of the other publications where she said she has been published, like Asian Robotics Review and The American Journal of Translational Medicine, appear to be obscure journals with a very limited web presence.

Prior to Deep Knowledge Group, Colangelo’s LinkedIn profile shows that since 2007 she has been president of U1 Technologies, a company that “provides the communications infrastructure for stock trading platforms used by the world’s top multinational investment banks.”

An internet search shows that in February 2017 U1 Technologies bid on a contract to build a prototype of US President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico.

Although it is not mentioned on her LinkedIn profile, Colangelo was described online as recently as 2015 as the CEO of “The Delian Group.” The Delian Group is a private intelligence company owned by a former CIA intelligence officer named William Ross Newland III, whose services include “intelligence operations, intelligence collection, cutting edge security technology, cyber security, cyber operations, social media monitoring, threat detection, political and economic reporting and law enforcement training” for clients that include “multinational companies, intelligence services, police, military, financial institutions, emergency services, and the mining and energy sectors.”

According to Intelligence Online, The Delian Group’s owner was also a partner in the private intelligence firm TD International, which reportedly caters to many clients from the former Soviet Union.

The Times of Israel sent questions to Colangelo, asking her about the methodology behind the DKG ranking that placed Israel as the world’s safest country at the end of March — and continues to do so even as Israel was statistically about 27th in the world in deaths per capita from the virus as of this weekend — and how she thinks the ranking came to Netanyahu’s attention. We also asked about the background and activities of  Deep Knowledge Group and where its money comes from. She had not responded as of publication of this article.

Follow the money

Deep Knowledge Group’s other co-founder, Dmitry Kaminskiy, first appeared in the media in 2014. English-language publications from the time do not reveal much about him, but an August 2014 article in Russia’s Ekspert business weekly described Kaminskiy as an IT specialist involved in banking analytics who recently became interested in futurology and life extension science and had decided to invest in the cancer research of two promising Russian scientists, Anton Buzdin and Alex Zhavoronkov.

“Dmitry is also one of those active young people who are interested in many things. And at first he was fascinated by futurologists and fans of artificial intelligence. But, as it turned out a little later, he was even more attracted to the life sciences. He began to develop his horizons in this direction.”

Dmitry Kaminskiy (Facebook)

Buzdin and Zhavoronkov were also supported by the state-funded Skolkovo Foundation, making Kaminskiy a co-investor with the Russian government in their cancer research venture. In 2014, the FBI’s Boston office warned that the Skolkovo Foundation, a Russian-government-backed innovation fund, was investing in US-based technology firms in order to steal their intellectual property.

“The FBI recently released a notification to technology companies and research facilities, which include colleges and universities in the Boston area, warning them of the possible perils of entering into joint partnerships with foreign venture capital firms from Russia,” special agent Lucia Ziobro wrote.

According to the Ekspert article, Kaminskiy founded Deep Knowledge Ventures, a venture capital firm, in Hong Kong in 2014, saying he planned to raise money from wealthy Chinese and Russian investors. He said he planned to invest $100 million in life-extension technologies around the world by the end of 2015.

“I thought [Hong Kong] was a very favorable place. There is a huge concentration of scientists and extremely wealthy people who are inclined not only to traditional, but also to progressive investments. It has strong legislation and powerful financial institutions,” Kaminskiy told Ekspert.

Kaminskiy also founded two nonprofits in Moscow: the Center for Biogerontology and Regenerative Medicine, which develops new methods of treating cancer and anti-aging, as well as the Fund for Supporting Advanced Biotechnologies.

In March of 2019, several companies owned by Kaminskiy published a 577-page report entitled “Longevity in Israel,” mapping Israel’s biotech industry, including names and detailed descriptions of hundreds of companies and entrepreneurs.

The study quotes Netanyahu on page 50 regarding a plan to digitize the health records of Israel’s nearly nine million citizens and open the data up to researchers and entrepreneurs, including people from abroad.

“The government is planning to invest in local entrepreneurs and attract foreign investors so that they could come and invest in the country through the data that has been examined and collected by the Israel doctors in their clinics,” the report stated.

As the Times of Israel has reported, in March 2018 the Israeli government approved a National Digital Health Plan that would create a digital database of the medical files of some 9 million residents and make them available to researchers and enterprises. Despite assurances that the government would protect Israelis’ data, privacy advocates warned that the data could be abused. The program is currently in a pilot stage, with the government subsidizing startups that use health data in an innovative way.

“It’s estimated that almost 98% of the population has been examined and documented on a special digital platform for years now,” said the longevity study, adding that “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that ‘the Israeli database is a huge asset and we want to give it to researchers, developers and companies. The interest of global companies is tremendous. I’ve already met many.’”

Moldova’s President Igor Dodon delivers a brief statement, next to Parliament Speaker Zinaida Greceanii, after a meeting of the country’s Supreme Security Council in Chisinau, Moldova, June 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Roveliu Buga)

According to the Moldovan newspaper Ziarul de Garda, in February 2018, Dmitrii Kaminskiy was chosen to be one of several economic advisers to Moldovan president Igor Dodon.

A source familiar with the Russian economy and Russian business told The Times of Israel that while Kaminskiy has been described as an “oligarch” in various Russian and English-language publications, he is not a well-known figure in Russia.

An international alliance of longevity enthusiasts

According to Harvard University anthropology professor Anya Bernstein, in Russia the effort to lengthen human life through technology is not just an investment opportunity; it’s a utopian, quasi-religious movement. Bernstein is the author of a 2019 book entitled “The Future of Immortality: Remaking Life and Death in Contemporary Russia.

“Well before Silicon Valley’s recent obsession with immortality,” she wrote, “from the mid-nineteenth century onward, in Russia, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation that succeeded them, the theme of technologically enabled human immortality has been consistent across diverse intellectual circles.”

Kaminskiy and other longevity enthusiasts have been active organizing politically, advocating for government investment in and promotion of biotech, artificial intelligence, fintech and blockchain initiatives that will supposedly promote longer lifespans.

Thus in the UK, Kaminskiy helps sponsor the “All Party Parliamentary Group for Longevity,” while in Israel, Kaminskiy’s close associate and co-author of his 577-page report on the Israeli Longevity Industry, Ilia Stambler, claims he has been influential in drafting the Knesset’s masterplan on aging. Kaminskiy and Stambler were both advisers for an initial coin offering of a longevity token for an app designed to “promote health and fitness, anti-aging, and personalized health diagnostics.”

Stambler, a Moldova-born Israeli who is the director of Research and Development at Shmuel Harofe Geriatric Medical Center in Beer Yaakov, Israel, is the head of the Israel Longevity Alliance and Vetek, the Movement for Longevity and Quality of Life in Israel, which are part of a Russian umbrella organization called the International Longevity Alliance that has chapters in 60 countries, according to the organization’s website.

Ilia Stambler (left) and Dmitry Kaminskiy (Facebook)

A third of the funding of the Israel Longevity Alliance/Vetek comes from a Gibraltar-based company known as Media Tower Limited. According to Gibraltar’s corporate registry, Media Tower Ltd. is 99.9 % owned by Finsbury Nominees Limited and 0.1% owned by Finsbury Holdings Limited. The identity of Media Tower Ltd’s ultimate beneficial owner is a mystery.

An internet search reveals that Media Tower Limited is an “IT Support, Web Development and SEO company” based in London that appears to have nothing to do with Israel. It is run by a Latvian man named Helmuts Meskonis who also owns, in partnership with a Russian man named Pavel Sizov, a company known as VLSA that provides clients with a prestigious London address even when they are located elsewhere.

“Any UK-registered business and almost all international businesses can get a premium W1 central London business correspondence address from VLSA,” the site says. “We see ourselves as Swiss-like private and secure business service provider.”

Not just Netanyahu

Netanyahu is not the only Israeli politician who has been promoting the Deep Knowledge Group study. On April 15, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman issued a statement to the press saying “Forbes Magazine has ranked Israel as the safest country from the coronavirus, and in eighth place in terms of the effectiveness of our response. This could not have happened without the dedication of doctors, nurses… and everyone doing the holy work of the health system.”

Israel’s leading television news show, N12, also reported the Forbes ranking on its homepage on April 15, before removing the article after being ridiculed on social media and after learning that the Forbes article had not been produced by the magazine itself but was a contributed piece by a co-founder of Deep Knowledge Group.

On April 16, Moshe Ya’alon MK, the former Likud defense minister who is now a prominent adversary of Netanyahu’s, dismissed the ranking and the prime minister’s repeated references to it: “Israel is the safest in the world?” he scoffed in a Channel 12 interview. “It’s a lie and a fraud.”

The criticism may have affected the prime minister as well.

On Saturday night, April 18, when Netanyahu most recently addressed Israelis on national television, he did not cite the Deep Knowledge Group study. Instead, he said, more vaguely, “among the developed countries, the OECD member states, Israel is ranked very high in dealing with the coronavirus. The per capita mortality rate in Israel is among the lowest in the OECD. The mortality rate among the sick in Israel is among the lowest in the OECD.”

Most Popular
read more: