How Do You Export Cannabis in the Time of Coronavirus?

These Israeli companies are overcoming the obstacle of the coronavirus - whether it’s training in precise medical techniques, growing cannabis in Uganda or diagnosing a sick lake by satellite

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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The iconic Carmel Market for fresh produce and sundry stuff is closed down
The iconic Carmel Market for fresh produce and sundry stuff is closed downCredit: Moti Milrod
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

It’s tough to be stuck in the house, especially if you want to save the world. Or at least your company. Some Israelis are finding ways to do business that would under non-coronaviral conditions require them to fly.

If they can’t, at least their cargo can. The website Flightradar24.com, which shows all registered flights in real time (with an emphasis on registered), shows something you may not expect: The skies are full of planes. But closer examination shows that passenger planes are relatively few and most are carrying goods, not people. But even if there’s not enough capacity and exporters and importers are competing like ravening tigers over the diminished space, if there’s a will to ship, there’s a way, says Nir Sosinsky, a founding partner of medical cannabis company Together Pharma.

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Haredi leaders learn harsh corona lesson as Israel sends in the troopsCredit: Haaretz

For others, getting their products to customers solves only half the problem. Take IceCure Medical, which makes technology to treat or cure certain early-stage cancers without surgery, using cryoablation, or freezing the tumor tissue. Unlike elective surgical procedures, cancer treatment doesn’t have to wait for the pandemic to abate, so demand for its equipment remains (for treating early stage cancers of the breast, kidney, liver and for palliative treatment of bone cancer, the company says).

To help customers get their new devices up and running, IceCure, which is listed on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, has resorted to the same solution as worshippers creating a virtual minyan: Zoom.

Normally when IceCure makes a sale, especially to a hospital buying the machinery for the first time, it sends experts from Israel to install the gear and train the staff. After IceCure closed a half-million dollar sale to Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok in March, CEO Eyal Shamir would normally have come personally to oversee the installation and training. But Bumrungrad couldn’t wait for the pandemic restrictions to end because it is in the process of setting up Thailand’s biggest breast-treatment center, so it agreed to proceed by Zoom.

Since delivery is slated for May or June, IceCure may end up sending somebody after all. But since no one can predict the trajectory of this pandemic, the company is preparing for the Thai team to be guided by the Israeli team via Zoom in real time, day or night, Shamir vows. “We have presentations and real videos for equipment installation and operation,” he says.

Creating the iceball that freezes tumor tissue - simulation
Creating the iceball that freezes breast tumor tissue - simulationCredit: IceCure Medical

What about Beijing closing its borders? “We just sent a machine to China,” Shamir says. It took four days for it to arrive and the shipping cost more than usual, but it can be done, he says.

It bears adding that while IceCure’s technology has been approved in Israel, the European Union, the U.S., Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong , Mexico, Costa Rica and Thailand, in China it’s more complicated: The device itself is approved but the disposables, single-use probes, need a separate approval that is still pending, Shamir says. Presumably both he and the customer are optimistic, since its equipment has already been ordered by the biggest hospital in Shanghai. For the time being they’re using it to train staff and for an internal clinical study.

So life doesn’t give you lemons

As a parent at wits’ end after days at home with the kids quipped on social media, if there really is going to be a “pandemic baby boom,” it’s probably going to be confined to first-time parents. Or maybe not, if the 80% drop in sales at Ocon Healthcare is any indication. The Israeli company makes intrauterine contraceptive devices shaped like a ball made of rings that could be mistaken for a very small model of the solar system (without a sun) at a casual glance.

Sales are down but the company isn’t paralyzed, says CEO Keren Leshem. “Women will always need contraception,” she points out. That is a truism at all times and especially for people stuck at home for weeks who just can’t stand Netflix or Facebook any more.

In much of Western Europe people have been asked to forgo seeking medical attention except for emergencies and getting an IUD device doesn’t count as one, Leshem says. In Eastern Europe life continues more as usual, though the pace of IUD sales there has slowed. In Israel, too, women can still get an IUD insertion despite the coronavirus constraints, though the pace of insertions has slowed, she adds.

The round "Ballerine" IUD 
credit
The round "Ballerine" IUD creditCredit: Ocon Healthcare

Ocon’s ball-shaped IUD is smaller and more flexible than the traditional T-shaped IUDs, fits the uterine cavity better and has fewer side effects like bleeding and pain, Leshem claims. It is manufactured only in Israel and is sold in Europe, the Far East and Africa. Sales in Turkey are still expected to start by year-end, coronavirus or not, and in the U.S. the device is in the process of getting approval by the Food and Drugs Administration.

With the help of a model vagina, Ocon representatives normally conduct face-to-face training sessions with doctors learning how to insert the device into patients, Leshem says. But now, that’s not an option, so Zoom is being used in a way its founders probably never imagined.

Don’t go jump in a lake

Meanwhile, as human beings contend with the new infection that we may have caught from pangolins, or bats, or some other animal, other microscopic life goes on. That includes cyanobacteria, aka blue-green algae, and other algal forms that can create vast blooms that poison our water systems, lakes and oceans, killing other living things such as mollusks and fish.

It isn’t advised to jump into any lake infested with an algal bloom and until the advent of the Israeli startup BlueGreen Water Technologies, no good solutions had been found for blooms. Using a patented technique called LakeGuard, the Israeli company provides a groundbreaking method to kill the toxic blooms without killing everything else in the water.

When the coronavirus pandemic broke out, the company was working on projects in South Africa and Israel. In one sense they were lucky, says CEO Eyal Harel: “We finished our most recent project in South Africa five minutes before the skies were closed in South Africa and Israel, and our next projects there hadn’t begun yet.”

Moshe Harel, wearing hat, and Maayan Nave at the dam of heavily infected Roodeplaat Lake in South Africa: The green scum is an algae bloom
Moshe Harel, wearing hat, and Maayan Nave at the dam of heavily infected Roodeplaat Lake in South Africa: The green scum is an algae bloomCredit: Francois Flair

Less fortuitous is the fact that a major project in China, at a site only about 600 kilometers from Wuhan, ground-zero for the coronavirus crisis, had been slated to start in February and has since been frozen. There’s a project in Florida that is expected to gain approval in a month or two. The company also expects more projects in South Africa towards year-end, which may be winter in the northern hemisphere but it’s summer in the southern half of the globe, and bluegreen algae love the summer.

BlueGreen has LakeGuard ready to ship and it has people on the ground in China, South Africa and the U.S. But its technique of assassinating algae running riot in a water body involves more than tossing a kilo of patented granules into a lake and waiting. Treating a body of water effectively and affordably requires knowing how much to use, where to put it and when. You have to see the algal buildup with your own eyes, smell it, know it. Even an expert can’t just look at a lake and diagnose it using Whatsapp or Zoom. As Harel puts it, “Lakes are a biological jungle.”

Ideally the company’s experts should be on location. They might even qualify as essential workers for the sake of travel ban waivers. But the algae waits for neither man nor beast, only for some nice sewage and other things to eat to get dumped in the water, so BlueGreen is preparing for the possibility its experts may be stuck at home and leading projects remotely. “We’re not frozen. We have boots on the ground in all these places. All are people with experience who have done projects with us in the past,” Harel says. “Is it ideal? No. But it is what it is. Monitoring by satellite, we can do it from home.”

All Together now at Camp Cannabis

Together Pharma has a different problem. It grows medical cannabis in Israel and Uganda. Its entire Israeli crop is earmarked for the Israeli market, which has been growing like a weed. Its crop in Uganda is slated for export to Europe and Israel, too.

Apart from shipping issues, Together’s other challenge was Uganda’s imposing strict coronavirus containment measures, Together’s founding partner Sosinsky explains to Haaretz.

Baby marijuana sprouts at the medical cannabis company Together Pharma's farm in Uganda
Baby marijuana sprouts at the medical cannabis company Together Pharma's farm in UgandaCredit: Together Pharma

Among other things, the government ruled that if a company wants to continue operating during the pandemic, workers have to sleep on the premises. So Together hastily erected a barracks for 100 staff at its Uganda farm. “They can’t go home, unfortunately,” Sosinsky says.

But otherwise, it’s business as usual. “Cargo shipping [using Turkish Airlines, via Istanbul] is as usual. The police security is also as usual,” he says. Since, Uganda closed its borders, management in Israel communicates with the local team by Zoom, Whatsapp and emails. “Today it’s all one global village,” says Sosinsky.

An adult cannabis plant at the medical cannabis company Together Pharma's farm in Uganda
An adult cannabis plant at the medical cannabis company Together Pharma's farm in UgandaCredit: Together Pharma

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