Fist-bumping Biden isn’t reducing COVID risk in Israel by avoiding handshakes

White House suggests US president is being careful about COVID, but scientists now know that people don’t catch COVID-19 as a result of physical contact

Nathan Jeffay

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

US President Joe Biden, right, is greeted by Prime Minister Yair Lapid, as they fist bump during a welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv, July 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
US President Joe Biden, right, is greeted by Prime Minister Yair Lapid, as they fist bump during a welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv, July 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

US President Joe Biden is fist-bumping his way around Israel. But his attempt to reduce palm-to-palm contact time during his Middle East trip won’t actually protect him against the coronavirus, medical officials say.

Scientists today generally agree that people simply don’t catch COVID-19 as a result of physical contact.

Biden hasn’t totally forgone handshakes but has shown a preference for fist bumps. This was clear from the first moment of his trip on Wednesday, when many Israeli politicians at Ben Gurion Airport received a friendly fist instead of a hand as they greeted him.

There has been speculation that the conduct change is a reputation management strategy so he can acceptably avoid a handshake with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who he will meet on the next leg of his trip. The US has sought to gingerly improve ties with Riyadh after Biden vowed during his campaign to treat the Gulf kingdom like a “pariah” over its human rights record, and photographs of such a handshake would be unpopular at home.

Late Wednesday, a senior US official denied that Washington was behind a directive issued to Israeli ministers at the welcome ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport not to expect handshakes from Biden.

“We never put out guidance that nobody would shake hands or anything else,” the official says.

But the White House instead suggested that it was COVID shaping his conduct. There are “precautions” now in place to “keep him safe and to keep all of us safe,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters, also commenting: “We’re trying to minimize contact as much as possible where we can.”

While cleaning hands with alcohol gel, and avoiding touching people, were seen as important precautions early in the pandemic, when scientists were still figuring out exactly how the virus is transmitted, they aren’t any longer.

US President Joe Biden shakes hands with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, as he is shown aerial defense systems, Wednesday, July 13, 2022, in Tel Aviv, as Prime Minister Yair Lapid, right of Biden, looks on. (AP/Evan Vucci)

“As far as we know now, the virus is not transmitted via contact,” the top epidemiologist, Ronit Calderon-Margalit of the Hebrew University, told The Times of Israel. “There is no transmission from contact, meaning that if you’ve touched a person or a surface contaminated by the virus and then touch your mouth or nose you won’t get infected. From what we understand it’s not an issue.”

According to Prof. Cyrille Cohen, Bar Ilan University immunologist, “transmission through handshakes is not plausible.”

Calderon-Margalit said that even if people infected with the coronavirus have been lax in personal hygiene, for example by not washing their hands after using the bathroom, physical contact like handshakes won’t lead to infection as it simply doesn’t spread by “fecal retransmission.”

Calderon-Margalit said: “COVID isn’t transmitted by fecal-oral transmission, as there is when people have diarrhea and fail to wash their hands. Rather, it’s airborne, transmitted by aerosols or droplets, which means if you’re in a closed space with someone infected by the virus, from their exhalation, coughing or sneezing.”

Cohen echoed this analysis, saying: “SARS-CoV-2’s main route of transmission is through droplets, though under certain conditions it could be airborne.

“To explain, droplets are usually expelled from infected people and since their size is over five micrometers in diameter, they usually fall quickly to the floor due to gravity. Airborne transmission refers to droplets that are much smaller and could hang in the air for longer, a few minutes, and travel farther than common droplets, especially indoors with people shouting or sneezing.”

If Biden’s fist bumps reduced his time in the proximity of the people he is greeting it could have marginal benefit by distancing his face from theirs.

“There isn’t a benefit in avoiding the handshake per se, but it could possibly put some distance between him and others who may be infected,” commented Calderon-Margalit.

However, the US president has seemed prepared to come close to people after fist-bumping. For example, he fist-bumped Prime Minister Yair Lapid after landing and shortly afterward had his arm around Lapid with their faces close together, and he did the same with President Isaac Herzog after initially fist-bumping him.

US President Joe Biden speaks with President Isaac Herzog, left, after arriving at Ben Gurion Airport, Wednesday, July 13, 2022, in Tel Aviv. Prime Minister Yair Lapid is right. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

When Jean-Pierre was asked about the logic in reducing contact, by a journalist who pointed out that the coronavirus is “largely spread via airborne,” she gave no clear answer, replying that COVID conduct has gone through different “iterations,” and adding: “All I will say is that we’re in a phase of the pandemic now where we are seeking to reduce contact and to increase masking, as we’re standing here masked before you, to minimize spread.”

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