Startup Israel tackles Coronavirus with ingenuity and chutzpah

Magen David Adom workers at a special emergency Call Center in Kiryat Ono, 26 February,(Photo by Flash90)

A handwashing machine and facemasks that claim to kill Coronavirus. Contact-free monitoring of hospitalised 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.

Even before anyone knew Coronavirus would reach the Middle East, Israeli humanitarians sprang into action. Several organisations shipped protective gear to China and IsraAID offered 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. 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 a special plant-based ingredient, also made in Israel, combined with the machine’s capabilities, kills a virus more resistant than corona.

CoughSync, developed at Jerusalem’s Alyn paediatric 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 COVID-19 patients are hospitalised in isolation at Chaim Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, Ramat Gan. Sheba, the largest medical centre in the Middle East, houses the ARC Innovation Center directed by Dr. Eyal Zimlichman, chief medical and innovation officer at the medical center.

“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, contracted the disease from patient contact.”

Hospitals in Southeast Asian countries including China, Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong are using another Israeli invention, the Temi personal robot, to minimise 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.

Sheba held a webinar to share its Coronavirus care experience with hospitals in the United States. 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.

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.

“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.

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.

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. With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledging to “enlist the best minds in Israel in order to efficiently separate the healthy and the sick.”

By Abigail Klein Leichman for Israel21C

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