Medical Students in Israel on the Front Line Against Coronavirus

Medical students, grad students and faculty with lab skills belatedly embraced by healthcare system are volunteering in droves to facilitate testing as COVID-19 spreads in Israel

Students volunteering at Sheba Medical Center
Courtesy of Sheba Medical Center

Students and faculty in science departments at Israeli universities are joining the battle against the spread of the coronavirus after chafing at the bit for weeks. After initially deflecting would-be volunteers because of concerns about regulation, certification and skill sets, the Health Ministry approved the participation of qualified students late last week. They are now volunteering in droves – including on this last Shabbat– by helping to test people, conducting analyses of samples, and assisting lab workers, paramedics and army teams involved in the overall effort.

“If I can help, I think it is my civic duty to do so,” said Avishay Edri, a doctoral student in the Shraga Segal Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Genetics at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva, who initiated the volunteer drive there.

From Israel’s medical schools alone more than 2,000 students have volunteered, according to Omri Rahamimov, chairman of the medical students association at Tel Aviv University.

“It’s riskier than staying at home,” he acknowledges. “But the students are given personal protective equipment: a full-body suit with an advanced filtration mask that also protects the eyes against patient spray,” he says, referring to the fact that a patient coughing and emitting coronavirus particles can infect others in the vicinity.

Conducting tests and analysis of the samples gathered are key tools for evaluating the extent of the virus. At present, Rahamimov explained, medical students in earlier years of medical school are permitted to test people by using swabs, applied to the nose and mouth, but cannot do blood tests. In any case, labs that analyze the samples for coronavirus are only allowed under Health Ministry directives to accept as volunteers researchers and doctoral students with the appropriate skills, from the fields of biology or bio-medicine.

Relieving the logjam

Ben-Gurion University for one is organizing its efforts through its own Coronavirus Task Force, under Angel Porgador, a professor of immunology. From the university’s “small pool” of eligible scientists, almost 100 – including doctoral students, departmental heads and other faculty – have volunteered so far, the university reports.

Roi Gazit, a researcher in BGU’s Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Genetics, has volunteered to test samples and attests that the volunteers are crucial to relieving the logjam. When they arrived on their first morning, he and the other volunteers saw a large pile of samples that had to be tested. The scientists got through them quickly, Dr. Gazit says.

Students volunteering at Meuhedet HMO
Courtesy of Meuhedet HMO

Shirel Argueti, who is pursuing a doctorate in physiology at BGU, began volunteering last Thursday morning with another qualified friend. They’re still being trained in how to conduct the lab test for COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, she tells Haaretz, but meanwhile they are contributing by organizing the test tubes and paperwork, a less risky job.

Why did she and her friend volunteer for what is not, after all, a no-risk proposition? “Because we got an email asking doctoral students who can perform qPCR [quantitative polymerase chain reaction, a molecular biology laboratory technique that can be tweaked to test for coronavirus] to volunteer,” Argueti says simply, noting that she continues to conduct her own research, involving mice, which could not be abandoned. “So we are here anyway, we didn’t flee to our parents, and decided to volunteer with pleasure,” she adds. “We aren’t afraid. We know how to do the lab tests; we have good protective gear, we are young and we will be fine.”

Gazit also doesn’t seem to be overly concerned about his own health. “We are fine, but I am concerned for my parents. We have to take care of the older people and those with weakened immune systems – now we are making even more of an effort for them,” the researcher says.

Collaborative effort

Israel’s top institutions of higher learning are all part of this collaborative effort, says Tel Aviv University: Aside from TAU itself, volunteers are coming from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Bar-Ilan University, the Weizmann Institute of Science, and Ariel University. So far, they have put some 600 doctoral students with biology skills into action.

“We understand from countries that did [extensive testing] like South Korea that the more one tests, the more one knows how many people in the population are sick with COVID-19 there are in the population, making it easier to cope,” Rahamimov says. “The more we test, the more likely we are to be spared Italy’s situation, which is catastrophic. Their medical system is overwhelmed.”

Not all medical students are adept in coronavirus testing technology and many are unable to help in any immediate sense with analyses of tests in the lab. But they can man drive-in, swab-sample collection stations, which first began to operate in Tel Aviv, Rahamimov says. Students are also on board ambulances and army vehicles traveling to conduct and collect samples from people quarantined or simply shut up at home.

‘Happy to help’

George Naser is a fifth-year student at the Azrieli Faculty of Medicine in Safed, run under the auspices of Bar-Ilan University. Monday was his third day of volunteering. He heard about it from a friend, also a medical student, working at the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, who told him they sorely needed help from people proficient in using the polymerase chain reaction test kits, which demands special skill.

“I contacted the lab and said I would be happy to help,” Naser told Haaretz, adding that his med school is encouraging students to volunteer in the drive to halt the pandemic’s spread.

Naser began his stint as a volunteer by training other, less-skilled volunteers at the Magen David Adom emergency medical service in how to put on and use the personal protection equipment against virus infection. Also a teacher, Naser trained his own students, who volunteered to administer swab tests to people identified by MDA, in their homes.

Meanwhile, Naser has learned the lab procedures for testing for coronavirus and is now analyzing samples at the Galilee Medical Center. How many tests can the lab handle? “It depends on how may samples we get,” he says. “Yesterday we did about 140. Today [Monday] we got less, so we did something like 60, 65, 75 – I lost count.” Some are positive, he adds, there were two or three today.

How does his family feel about his work testing for coronavirus? Nasser: “At first they were a little worried. But ultimately they were also extremely supportive – saying this is an emergency and everybody has to do what they can to help. We’re doing it with all our hearts, and trying to be optimistic.”

“It is inspiring to see the students, from all the higher education institutions in the country, who enlisted bravely and resolutely to establish new laboratories and to assist existing laboratories in their efforts against the coronavirus,” said Prof. Carmit Levy of the Department of Human Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry at the Tel Aviv University Sackler Faculty of Medicine.

A question to the Health Ministry as to how many labs are now testing for coronavirus in Israel was not answered as of press time. Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country have passed 1,220 as of mid-afternoon Monday.