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Saving Lives from COVID-19 is the Latest Mission of the Israeli Army’s R&D Lab

Saving Lives from COVID-19
As the battle against COVID-19 continues, the research and development unit of the Israeli Defense Ministry has engaged in a powerful war against a new type of enemy.

Since Israel began its fight against COVID-19, a range of professionals – including doctors, scientists, engineers, and defense contractors – have been enlisted for their services. Generally, the R&D sector of the Israeli Defense Ministry is best known for developing modern tech and new techniques for war, such as stealth tanks and sniper drones. However, since March it has been leading a forceful, high-speed effort to use the country’s advanced technologies against COVID-19, to protect and save lives.

Major hospitals and research institutes, such as Sheba Medical Center, have partnered with Israel’s high-tech and military sector, such as Elbit Systems, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, and Israel Aerospace Industries. These are the major massive companies behind Israel’s supply of missiles, fighter jets, and unmanned vehicles. While red tape is often a deterrent to forming a rapid, unified response to a crisis, Israel succeeded in establishing a national task force against coronavirus in no time at all.

“In Israel, if there is a mission that has to get done, it’s like a war,” said Brig. Gen. Dani Gold, who is leading the charge. “Everybody drops what they’re doing, tunes into the mission and works on the mission with a lot of energy and creativity.”

Gen. Gold, the father of the Iron Dome anti-missile system, heads the Directorate of Defense Research and Development in Israel. The division’s work on the coronavirus marks a number of potentially game-changing technologies:

Diagnostic Testing – Using the Senses

Calling upon the basic senses of sound, smell, and sight, several Israeli startups are competing to develop rapid diagnostic tests to identify the presence of coronavirus.

  • Vocalis Health, in conjunction with Sheba Medical Center, is applying sensitive audio technology, AI, and machine learning to detect a vocal indicator for COVID-19 by analyzing a patient’s breathing and voice. In the hope of refining an app to classify patients’ infections as mild, moderate or severe depending on how they sound, voice samples have been recorded at Sheba.

“It’s a whole new area that I think a few years from now will be very central in health care,” said Dr. Eyal Zimlichman, the hospital’s chief medical officer and chief innovation officer.

  • NanoScent is developing a technology that uses AI sensors to detect and digitize scents. Their device is founded on the principle that the proliferation of virus cells in the noses of COVID-19 patients produces a distinctive odor.
  • Currently, two other tech teams, TeraGroup and a group from Ben Gurion University, are working on breathalyzers to enable rapid, inexpensive screenings at airports and commercial centers, flagging people who need to get more precise testing. The size and electrical properties of the novel coronavirus should be detectable by these devices as early as several hours after a person is infected.

Innovative Surveillance Techniques

  • AnyVision, a surveillance and facial recognition company that scans faces at military checkpoints, has designed an innovative use for its computer-vision and deep-learning technology. At Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, scientists are training AnyVision to identify COVID-19 cells on a microscopic level. The technology searches for the ways in which coronavirus diverts healthy cells from their typical functions. A positive result would indicate that the patient needs to undergo regular, slower testing to confirm diagnosis.

At Sheba Medical Center, the surveillance approach of AnyVision has already been used to help control the spread of the virus. It was patched into a network of approximately 600 surveillance cameras in public areas, sounding an alarm when someone enters a ward of the hospital without a face mask. The technology also enables infectious-disease nurses to instantly pinpoint who must be quarantined when a hospital staff member tests positive.

“We can ask the system to show us anyone who was in contact with that person, specifying the distance and duration of contact — for example, closer than two meters for more than five minutes — and it gives us either a list of people or photos,” explained Dr. Zimlichman.

Telemedicine to Protect Healthcare Workers

Minimizing direct contact between healthcare providers and patients is a top priority embraced by several projects yielding a higher chance of saving lives of both physicians and the infected patients.

  • Personal robotic assistants, developed by Temi, have been applied for medical use by Rafael and Elbit. The robots enable doctors to monitor patients or administer medicine with zero physical contact; the doctors don’t even need to enter the patients’ rooms.
  • Israel Aerospace Industries transformed a radar and electro-optical sensor system into a device used to measure a patient’s vital signs without touching them.

Medical Command & Control Centers

Israel Aerospace Industries has adapted the cockpit controls typically used for fighter jets and helicopters into a system for storing and analyzing data about COVID-19 patients on ventilators. The controls are currently in use at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba.

So far, Israel has coped relatively well with the challenges posed by coronavirus. Yet, if a second wave of infection overwhelms the health system, a command-and-control system is being developed by the military to link all hospitals in the country. The network would grant officials the ability to shift people and equipment to where they are needed most.

“This will be the first time Israel can see the situation at once in all the hospitals in the country,” said Colonel Talya Gazit, a reservist who was reactivated to head this initiative.

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