Missiles Out, Ventilators In: Israeli Defense Contractors Answer the Coronavirus Call

'We’re very good at war technology, and this is a war' – Defense companies are bringing their skills to medical technology and hospitals are pleased with the results

Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
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Ventilator hoods being tested at Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya, April 2020.
Ventilator hoods being tested this month at Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya. Credit: Rafael Advanced Defense Systems
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel

Even before the coronavirus reached Israel, the head of children’s intensive care at Western Galilee Hospital, Dr. Zeev Sonis, was very busy. Now, with his people working under intense pressure, it’s hard to get his attention for more than a few seconds.

For example, while speaking with Haaretz he received a call from the army’s robotics unit on treating COVID-19 patients – and within seconds he put someone on the line to keep the cooperation going.

At the time, he was on his way to a meeting on connecting ventilators to a remote-control system that would reduce the number of times medical staff must enter an infected area. And he was set to receive from Rafael Advanced Defense Systems ultraviolet-radiation technology for disinfecting small items.

“After the doctor enters to see the patient, he places what he touched – his phone, wallet, ID tag – in a UV box and it disinfects,” Sonis says. The hospital is also studying the possibility of disinfecting the CT-scan room with ultraviolet radiation.

It seems everyone is trying to do their bit for the health system, even companies that develop things like missiles. And it’s all happening very fast.

A command-and-control system based on the military’s “digital ground forces” technology has been converted for use by medical staff. Thermal cameras for missiles have been converted into cameras for taking a person’s temperature using complex algorithms.

Radar sensors have been turned into sensors that take readings of patients. And the gas mask hoods from the 1991 Gulf War have been repurposed as ventilator hoods.

“We’re very good at the war sciences and war technology, and this is a war. We need to take the technologies we use in war and implement them on the medical battlefield,” says Dr. Oren Caspi, the head of the advanced heart failure program at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa.

Defense contractor Rafael's ultraviolet-radiation technology for disinfecting small items, April 2020.
Defense contractor Rafael's ultraviolet-radiation technology for disinfecting small items.Credit: Alon Ron

Anesthesia et al

For the last two months, Caspi has been working only on the coronavirus. He’s also a reservist in the army’s Home Front Command, where he takes part in training.

“Our relative advantage as a country is the ability to take military technologies and capabilities and implement them in the medical industry,” Caspi says, adding that within 10 days, technology from defense contractor Elbit Systems had been rejiggered for medical use.

“This system allows us to work with protection. And with a push of a button it navigates you to people, it shows you the location when medical help is needed: resuscitation, anesthesia – and everything under protective gear.”

It enables communications between medical teams, the monitoring of patients, and the locating of staff and medical data. It also enables efficient triage, and not just by the light-moderate-serious statuses normally used.

This system was put into use a week ago in Rambam’s coronavirus ward, and a new version will be launched in the coming week. Rambam is now setting up a 20,000-square-meter (215,280-square-foot) underground hospital – and Caspi says the system will be critical there.

As for the day after the coronavirus, he says: “We realize that the system will serve us in the intensive care wards, unrelated to the apocalypse, and we have good friends to the north, south and east,” Caspi adds sarcastically. “It will remain for other wars.”

A remote-control system that connects to ventilators and would reduce the number of times medical staff must enter an infected area.
A remote-control system that connects to ventilators and would reduce the number of times medical staff must enter an infected area.Credit: Alon Ron

During a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, “all the bureaucratic walls fall, the business goals are dropped immediately, and everyone realizes they have to cooperate to save lives,” he says.

Elbit is also working on a solution to one of hospitals’ biggest problems nowadays: identifying patients with respiratory problems to prevent potential COVID-19 patients from entering unprotected wards.

Yossi Cohen, Elbit’s chief technology officer, says his company is refitting radar technology normally used for autonomous vehicles.

This system has three components: a chair with tiny radar sensors  on its back, electro-optical sensors two meters from the chair, and a monitor showing the information needed to decide on further treatment.

Someone suspected of being infected with the virus sits on the chair for 60 seconds while the doctor watches the monitor from a few meters away.

Dr. Yossi Shaya, a resident in urgent care at Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva and a consultant for the project, says he’s very pleased. Data can now be collected without coming too close to the patient, and equipment doesn’t have to be moved from patient to patient.

“We’re at the stage of validating the systems, we want to see that the systems are as good as the ones we use in routine times,” he says, adding that the measurements appear to be coming in accurate.

The system can be further developed and could become the basis for standard triage in the emergency room; “a new world has opened up for us,” Shaya says.

A robot for the care of coronavirus patients developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, April 2020.
A robot for the care of coronavirus patients developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems.Credit: Rafael Advanced Defense Systems

Ventilator hoods but not enough ventilators

Defense contractors are also forging technology that uses artificial intelligence to forecast the spread of the coronavirus and the development of the ensuing disease. One idea is to use artificial intelligence to predict a rapid worsening in a patient, and use it to identify patients at risk.

Dr. Sonis of Western Galilee Hospital says the ventilator hoods now being tested in the hospital in Nahariya are good, but they’re still based on the use of a ventilator – and there is a shortage of those machines. The idea is to avoid the need to use a ventilator at all.

“The hood is excellent, I was a partner in its development …. The problem is that they took it to a place of how to take full advantage of a ventilator that we don’t have – and that’s not smart,” Sonis says.

Sonis praises the defense contractors but says regulators have delayed the process. The Home Front Command has thousands of sets of protective equipment for medical staff, “but the Health Ministry is preventing the Home Front Command from releasing them” and is blocking other developments and research, he says.

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