The Innovation And Chutzpah of Israel Confronting The Coronavirus
How the startup nation is using its unique strengths to tackle one of the biggest health crises of the modern age.
Employees of Sheba Medical Center preparing to receive Israelis quarantined on the cruise ship Diamond Princess in Japan due to the spread of the coronavirus, February 20, 2020. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90
A handwashing machine and facemasks that claim to kill coronavirus. Contact-free monitoring of hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Proactive policies to prevent the spread of the virus. A possible vaccine on the horizon.
These are among the many ways Israel is responding with characteristic swift ingenuity to the raging coronavirus pandemic.
As of today, confirmed Israeli cases of COVID-19 stand at 39 – a drop in the deluge of 110,099 infected patients worldwide, of whom 62,303 have recovered and 3,831 have died.
But even before anyone knew coronavirus would reach the Middle East, Israeli humanitarians sprang into action.
Several organizations shipped protective gear to China and IsraAID is offering remote stress-management courses for Chinese healthcare workers.
About 100 Israeli physicians volunteered to lead video Q&A sessions with quarantined COVID-19 patients in China through Israeli nonprofit Innonation.
Israeli physician Dr. Ishay Lev leads a remote medical instruction seminar aided by Chinese translator Mazal Liu. Photo courtesy of Innonation
Tech for corona
On the technology front, Israelis startups immediately began brainstorming how their inventions, some intended for different purposes entirely, could help in the current crisis.
Soapy introduced an antiviral soap for its automatic handwashing microstations already used in many countries. Testing done before the coronavirus outbreak proved that the special plant-based ingredient, from Israeli company Green Life, kills a virus more resistant than corona.
Soapy’s hygiene microstation now includes a soap with a special ingredient that kills viruses. Photo: courtesy
CoughSync, developed at Jerusalem’s Alyn pediatric and adolescent rehabilitation hospital to help children unable to cough for themselves, is awaiting approval from China as a tool for treating COVID-19 patients with pneumonia and for reducing risks to healthcare providers.
Antimicrobial fabrics developed at Sonovia and Argaman — potentially for hospital linens or chemotherapy patients — may be made into facemasks that potentially kill, not only block, coronavirus.
One country has already bought treated fabric from Argaman to make 1 million Bio-Block masks. Labs in China and Singapore are testing Sonovia’s fabric.
And the MIGAL Galilee Research Institute quickly began reformulating a vaccine it’s been developing against poultry coronavirus over the past four years.
Though it was widely reported that MIGAL’s human vaccine could be ready within 90 days, an institute spokesperson tells ISRAEL21c that it’s the prototype of such a vaccine that may be ready quickly.
The prototype would have to be licensed to another company for human trials. If such trials satisfy regulatory requirements, then manufacturing would begin in a regulation-compliant facility. The whole process could take at least a year or two.
Whether MIGAL’s vaccine candidate ultimately succeeds or fails, the effort is emblematic of Israel’s can-do attitude to crisis management. It’s just one of many solutions for coronavirus care being piloted here.
Israeli startups help COVID-19 patients
About 15 Israeli COVID-19 patients are hospitalized in isolation at Chaim Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, Ramat Gan.
Sheba, the largest medical center in the Middle East, houses the ARC Innovation Center co-directed by Dr. Eyal Zimlichman.
“When we knew we were getting exposed people from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan [in February], we reached out to the telemedicine startups we work with in ARC to see if they wanted to test their technologies,” Zimlichman tells ISRAEL21c.
The first ones were TytoCare, Datos, Uniper Care and EarlySense.
TytoCare’s remote examination device enabled Sheba doctors to assess Israelis on the cruise ship suspected of having the virus before they even disembarked.
The Datos automated remote care platform enabled Sheba’s first-of-its-kind coronavirus telemedicine program. Medical staff can monitor and supervise quarantined or mildly ill patients, avoiding unnecessary hospital trips and exposure.
Uniper lets quarantined patients participate in classes and social activities via an interactive video-communication platform designed for homebound elderly people.
EarlySense is an under-the-mattress, no-contact sensor system that monitors and analyzes patients’ breathing patterns for subtle changes and potential signs of respiratory infection.
Sheba is also using BioBeat’s wireless, noninvasive stickers, FDA approved for monitoring blood pressure, blood oxygen saturation and pulse rate. Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa has integrated BioBeat in its new coronavirus ward as well, to limit physical contact with patients.
“This is critically important,” says Zimlichman. “We know that about 30 percent of healthcare workers in Wuhan, China, have contracted the disease from patient contact.”
Temi robot can take temps and bring food to quarantined patients. Photo: courtesy
Hospitals in Southeast Asian countries including China, Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong are using another Israeli invention, the Temi personal robot, to minimize patient contact. The parent company is headquartered in New York and China with R&D in Tel Aviv.
Originally built to help busy people maintain contact with elders and children at home, Temi was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Best Inventions of 2019 and won a Best of CES Asia award.
Recently added features empower Temi to do tasks such as taking temperatures and carrying food to patients under quarantine. A hand washing sink can be attached too.
During the last week in February, ARC organized a coronavirus hackathon for which 25 participants registered in 24 hours.
“It shows how people felt they wanted to contribute,” says Zimlichman.
The solutions proposed ranged from vaccines to therapeutics to remote monitoring technologies. ARC experts chose five that will develop their products with access to data and samples from Sheba’s COVID-19 patients.
Later this week, Sheba will hold a webinar to share its coronavirus care experience with hospitals in the United States, and possibly one in Singapore.
Zimlichman says he hopes that the huge amount of patient data being generated on Sheba’s isolation unit eventually will allow for predicting which coronavirus-exposed patients will develop the COVID-19 disease and which will be more severe.
“One of the ideas we’re considering now is to ask our ARC partners around the world to use similar monitoring technologies and collect data that we can all share. For now, only Israel is doing this.”
Two decades of preparation
In contrast to the unexpected application of Israeli technologies to the coronavirus crisis, the Israeli government had long ago laid the foundation of its uniquely aggressive policy to prevent widespread infection.
“Israel has been preparing for this kind of event for at least two decades with the establishment of an epidemiological response and intervention team,” says Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Director General of the Ministry of Health Moshe Bar Siman Tov demonstrate how to greet one another without shaking hands due to coronavirus concerns, March 4, 2020.
“We have a very strong system for lab testing, a strong surveillance system for influenza outbreaks and a strong public health system well trained to do epidemiological investigations. Since we have national health insurance, we have excellent electronic records and integration between clinic and community,” Davidovitch tells ISRAEL21c.
Israeli coronavirus policies demonstrate a type of chutzpah – a daring to mandate precautions other countries have hesitated to implement.
In addition to banning large public events and severely curtailing incoming flights, tens of thousands of Israelis who traveled to, or through, countries with any COVID-19 cases were instructed to self-isolate for 14 days. The government is considering extending quarantine to every foreign arrival.
“Israel may be the only country in the Western world that hasn’t had unaccounted-for infections,” says Prof. Tomer Hertz of the Shraga Segal Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Genetics at Ben-Gurion University.
“That’s because of strict policies implemented from the get-go and also because there aren’t many entry points into Israel so we can control who comes in.”
Israel’s Magen David Adom national emergency response network has partnered with the Health Ministry in setting up a hotline that allows callers to have video conversations with doctors, nurses and medics. MDA sends healthcare personnel to test people for the virus at home.
Israel has initiated international cooperation on coronavirus policy with the US government and leaders of countries in Europe and the Middle East.
Massive disinfection of public places is planned, as well as a program to expand the number of people who can be tested for coronavirus quickly and without having to leave home.
“We are looking for cheaper and quicker testing kits,” says Dr. Ashir Shalmon, director of international relations at the Health Ministry.
Possible solutions include a diagnostics kit from BATM said to detect coronavirus from saliva samples in less than half an hour; and a proven rapid-diagnosis technology developed at Bar-Ilan University that US-Israeli company MagBiosense is using to develop a device for rapid point-of-care diagnosis.
Addressing nonmedical needs
Joe van Zwaren, president of JLM-BioCity — a group of professionals from the life-sciences and biomed fields working to position Jerusalem as the capital of Israel’s biomed and life-sciences industry – has compiled a list of nearly 20 Israeli biotech companies relevant to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Because of the emergency, the Chinese [equivalent of the] FDA has created a fast track, which for certain technologies and certain conditions gives a one-week response,” van Zwaren tells ISRAEL21. “Some Israeli solutions could therefore be deployed there [quickly].”
Other Israeli companies have technologies to assist in areas beyond health that are affected by the outbreak.
With many schools and businesses around the world closed due to coronavirus cases, for example, Israeli firms Kaltura and Class.me are helping to assure that business operations and education don’t have to stop even if schools are closed and conferences canceled.
Israel’s Ministry of Education has set up remote learning platforms as well as an emotional health hotline for the thousands of students and hundreds of teachers currently quarantined at home.
The Israeli Finance Ministry is establishing an emergency fund for affected businesses and the air force has been recruited to help ensure the continuity of the essential supply chain for the Israeli economy.
Jerusalem-based investment platform OurCrowd will hold a webinar on March 18 at 6pm Israel time (noon New York time) about the impact of coronavirus on startups and some of the steps that can be taken to mitigate damage.
With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledging to “enlist the best minds in Israel in order to efficiently separate the healthy and the sick,” ISRAEL21c wishes all readers continued good health and a quick resolution of the coronavirus crisis.
And just a friendly reminder: Don’t forget to wash your hands!