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

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.

“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.”

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.

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.

“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.”

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.

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.”

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.

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.

Irit Pazner Garshowitz contributed reporting.

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