Israeli Army’s Idea Lab Aims at a New Target: Saving Lives

May 8, 2020

The country has engaged defense contractors, doctors, engineers, scientists — and most of the senses — in its battle against the coronavirus.


The control room at the coronavirus critical care department of the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, Israel, on Tuesday.Credit…Dan Balilty for The New York Times


JERUSALEM — The Israeli Defense Ministry’s research-and-development arm is best known for pioneering cutting-edge ways to kill people and blow things up, with stealth tanks and sniper drones among its more lethal recent projects.

But its latest mission is lifesaving. Since March, it has been spearheading a sprawling, high-speed effort to unleash some of the country’s most advanced technologies against an enemy of another kind: Covid-19.

The national undertaking is for the first time linking up major hospitals and research institutes with Israel’s vaunted high-tech sector and its military-industrial behemoths: Elbit Systems, Israel Aerospace Industries and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, the companies behind Israel’s arsenals of unmanned vehicles, missiles and souped-up fighter jets.

Red tape, institutional rivalries and cronyism can stand in the way of a unified, rapid response to a crisis. But Israel quickly set up a national task force and dozens of teams with hundreds of scientists, engineers, doctors, executives, government officials and military officers all working toward the same goals.

“In Israel, if there is a mission that has to be 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.”

Sheba Medical Center is using Defense Department technology to care for coronavirus patients, including in an expended critical care center in a converted parking deck.Credit…Dan Balilty for The New York Times

General Gold, known as the father of the Iron Dome antimissile system, leads the Directorate of Defense Research and Development, Israel’s version of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa.

While Darpa gave the world the internet and GPS, its Israeli counterpart has not had a similar impact on civilian life. Its work on the coronavirus, officials say, could be a start.

Here are a few of its potentially game-changing projects.

As some countries begin to ease antivirus restrictions, officials are clamoring for ways to quickly test masses of people and identify those who are contagious.

Several Israeli start-ups are vying to develop fast diagnostic tests to smell, hear or see the telltale characteristics of coronavirus infections.

SOUND One company, Vocalis Health, which uses sensitive audio technology, artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyze voice and breathing, is trying to identify a vocal indicator for the coronavirus. Far-fetched as that may sound, the company has already linked vocal markers to the risk of mortality in patients with congestive heart failure and to pulmonary hypertension.

Working with Sheba Medical Center, Vocalis has been recording voice samples from Covid-19 patients in hopes of refining an app that could categorize patients’ infections as mild, moderate or severe based on how they sound. “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.

SMELL NanoScent, a company whose technology uses arrays of sensors to detect and digitize odors, says that the proliferation of virus cells among the microorganisms that inhabit the noses of Covid-19 patients produces what is believed to be a distinct smell. And it is training its artificial intelligence to detect that smell.

“It’s not a definitive test,” said Oren Gavriely, NanoScent’s chief executive and co-founder. “But you’d come, you’d blow into a special bag that we’ve designed, you’d have a 30-second test, you’d expose it to the sensing device, and you’d get a result: Either you’re clear or you’re suspected to have something.”

Two other teams are developing breathalyzers using spectrum analyzers operating at super-high frequencies. TeraGroup’s has patients blow into a cigar-sized tube, said Oren Sadiv, the start-up’s chief executive. Mr. Sadiv said the device could handle 2,000 tests a day, each for the price of a cup of coffee. He said it would be intended not to make a positive diagnosis but to allow quick and cheap screenings at airports or marketplaces, flagging people who should get tested while letting others pass.

TeraGroup’s cigar-sized breathalyzer could be used at malls or airports to quickly screen for coronavirus.Credit…Dan Balilty for The New York Times

Prof. Gabby Sarusi of Ben-Gurion University, which is developing a similar device with Israel’s Directorate of Defense Research and Development, said the coronavirus’s size and electrical properties stick out when analyzed at high frequency and should be detectable as soon as several hours after someone is infected.

SIGHT Several of the most intriguing tools against the virus have been developed by AnyVision, a surveillance and facial recognition company that scans faces at military checkpoints. The company says its computer-vision and deep-learning technology can pick out someone on a watch list in a crowded stadium.

At Tel Aviv-Sourasky Medical Center, scientists are using AnyVision on a microscopic level, training it to detect Covid-19 cells by looking for the ways the virus diverts healthy cells from their usual functions. Prof. Dov Hershkowitz said their method offered results in a few minutes, and potentially with a false-positive rate of five percent or less. People testing positive would still need to take the slower, existing test to confirm the diagnosis, he said, but “we aim to be able to clear most of the people.”

AnyVision’s Big Brother-style surveillance is also being used to contain the spread of the virus within hospitals. At Sheba, it has patched into a network of about 600 surveillance cameras in public areas, setting off alarms when someone enters a department without wearing a mask, Dr. Zimlichman said.

At Sheba, a surveillance system sets off alarms when it spots someone not wearing a mask.Credit…Dan Balilty for The New York Times

AnyVision is also letting infectious-disease nurses instantly determine who else needs to be quarantined when a hospital worker tests positive. Dr. Zimlichman said: “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.”

A number of projects are aimed at minimizing direct contact between health workers and patients.

Temi had already identified a market for personal robotic assistants, costing about $2,000, that resemble an iPad on a parking-meter-high wheeled pedestal. Rafael and Elbit have now adapted them to operate in fleets, and to allow doctors to monitor patients or deliver them medicine without ever entering their rooms, said Yossi Wolf, who previously developed robots to help Israeli soldiers deal with Hamas tunnels or chemical weapons.

Professor Haim Maayan keeps his distance by monitoring the care of a coronavirus patient via a live video feed from a robot.Credit…Dan Balilty for The New York Times

Separately, Israel Aerospace Industries has converted a radar and electrooptical sensor system, used to peer across Israel’s borders and detect enemies, into a device that can take patients’ vital signs without touching them, said Amira Sharon, a vice president at I.A.I.

At Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba, in the south, I.A.I. has also adapted the cockpit controls it builds for fighter jets and helicopters to store and analyze information about Covid-19 patients on ventilators, Ms. Sharon said. “It gives the medical staff a comprehensive picture, while minimizing contact, and can generate early-warning signs to see where patients are going,” she said.

While Israel has fared relatively well against the virus so far, if a second wave overwhelms the health system, a command-and-control system being developed by the military is expected to link all the country’s hospitals, allowing officials to shift people and equipment where they are needed most, said Col. Talya Gazit, a reservist who was reactivated to lead the effort.

Beginning with Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, in the north, the project is linking systems containing patients’ clinical information, data on hospital staff and logistical and inventory systems with forecasting tools. “This will be the first time Israel can see the situation at once in all the hospitals in the country,” Colonel Gazit said.

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Irit Pazner Garshowitz contributed reporting.

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