Weapons against coronavirus

Doctor in protective gear / Photo: Reuters
Doctor in protective gear / Photo: Reuters

Israel's defense companies join the race to develop new medical technologies to combat Covid-19.

Anyone visiting the Shamir Medical Center (Asaf Harofe Hospital) in the next few days may perhaps encounter a robot with a small device mounted on it like a vertical neon light wandering the corridors of the hospital and entering empty rooms. The device is an experimental system for sterilizing closed spaces using ultra-violet light, created by engineers at Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) within less than two weeks.

This robot is just one product of collaboration born of the Covid-19 coronavirus crisis between Israel's defense companies and research institutes on the one hand, and its hospitals and Ministry of Health on the other. Within a few days, various advanced technological solutions will be introduced into government hospitals that in various ways will assist in the treatment of Covid-19 patients. At IAI, they first heard of the need for a robotic sterilizer from hospital managers and medical teams that participate in the roundtable set up by the Government Companies Authority in response to the Covid-19 crisis.

The simple idea behind the Government Companies Authority's initiative is to form a connection between the hospitals, the defense companies, and the Ministry of Health. The medical team puts forward the requirements, the companies produce solutions, and the regulator acts as integrator and gives approval in principle that allows technological solutions to be implemented in record time.

"Out of 30 different possible developments we're pursuing just a handful," says IAI VP of Strategy and R&D Dr. Amira Sharon, who adds that "The principle is what can bring value here and now." The Government Companies Authority believes that, beyond the crisis itself, the unmediated contact has produced conditions that will enable Israel's defense companies to expand their activity to medical technology.

Among members of the Government Companies Authority innovation forum are Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. and Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. (IAI) (TASE: ARSP.B1); Rotem, the commercial arm of the Negev Nuclear Research Center; Isorad, the commercial arm of the Soreq Nuclear Research Center; and Life Science Research Israel, the commercial arm of the Israel Institute for Biological Research. Together with them on the forum are hospital directors, and senior members of the medical technology and government hospital divisions at the Ministry of Health.

Between eight and ten work groups are currently employed at Rafael on various projects to do with protection of medical teams, alongside attempts to find practical and fast solutions in other areas. IAI says it has dozens of groups working on development of products connected to coping with the pandemic. The focus is on sterilization and recycling of perishables, cleansing of spaces and remote sensing.

At the Institute for Biological Research too they mention work on sterilization and recycling of perishable medical equipment, which will not only save money, but also reduce the amount of waste to be disposed of. "We are dealing with problems of sterilization and cleansing at the highest scientific level and in suitably safe conditions," the Institute said in response to enquiries from "Globes". "In addition, the Institute maintains contact with other academic institutions in Israel, and with biotechnology and pharmaceuticals companies with the aim of finding new and relevant breakthroughs."

Besides the robotic room sterilization system, additional solutions from the defense companies are expected to enter trials at the hospitals. The challenges mainly come from the need to protect medical staff from exposure and contagion. It turns out, for example, that connecting and disconnecting breathing apparatus releases large quantities of the coronavirus into the air. The solution proposed by IAI is a hood that provides better protection than regular masks.

One of the problems raised in meetings between the medical teams and the engineers was the need for medical staff to enter treatment rooms several times a day in order to check the data on monitoring equipment screens. The solution proposed is a system based on a mobile telephone and a camera that will transmit the data from the monitors to outside the room and substantially reduce the number of times that medical staff need to enter.

Another main way of reducing the exposure of medical staff to the virus is by means of robots. Existing robots are already capable of distributing food and drugs, but the intention is to develop robots capable of carrying out basic measurements of body temperature, blood pressure, and so on.

Another area that Rafael is investigating is improving communications between medical teams on the ward and the doctors supervising their work from outside. The solution being examined is to dictate the doctor's instructions to a loudspeaker installed inside the patients' rooms. Using voice-to-text technology, the instructions will be transferred to a digital bracelet worn by the patient.

At the entrance to the emergency department at one of the government hospitals a trial system will be installed that facilitates remote measurement of body temperature, and respiration and pulse rates. IAI engineers combined an Elta radar system with optic and artificial intelligence technology from the Ministry of Defense Directorate of Defense Research and Development (Mafat) and from the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology. The system, which will be capable of remotely identifying people suffering from fever, for example, will be able to replace manual examinations not only at entrances to hospitals, but also at shopping centers, government offices, and in fact any public place.

Opportunity to diversify

The Government Companies Authority has already identified in the model that has been created a business development opportunity for the defense industry. "These are two kinds of industries where there's big money," says Government Companies Authority director Yaakov Kvint, "The industries developing means of killing people, and the industries developing means of saving them." At IAI and Rafael they say that future business development is not relevant at this stage, and that all their attention is devoted to the crisis.

"If we look for a moment at the day after, then if today it is understood that we have to be prepared in the defense sphere, it will be understood that we have to be prepared in the medical sphere," says Government Companies Authority senior deputy director Uri Sheinin. "Clearly in the coming years we shall see countries pouring a great deal of money into their health systems. The fact that it is possible to create an ecosystem made up of the local health system and defense companies raises the question whether the medical technology division in the Ministry of Health cannot function like the Directorate of Defense Research and Development, and lead development of medical technology. The Directorate of Defense Research and Development's experience demonstrates that it's possible to construct a whole industry at an annual investment of just a few million shekels."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on April 1, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Doctor in protective gear / Photo: Reuters
Doctor in protective gear / Photo: Reuters
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