The Israeli military's coronavirus research center, an ad hoc operation set-up just as the first cases of the virus sprang up in the country, is set to dissolve and hand over its responsibilities to a Health Ministry research team.
The Military Intelligence Directorate’s COVID-19 National Information and Knowledge Center, which is currently headed by Prof. Salman Zarka, operated under the auspices of the Health Ministry’s Command and Control Center established in July 2020 by the Ministry and the National Security Council (NSC).
Operating out of a compound in Ben Gurion Airport, the Center manages all the bodies involved in handling the COVID crisis, including health and health system management professionals, police, aviation professional and others, as well as the National Information and Knowledge Center.
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It was established to provide decision makers with the data to make educated, knowledge-based decisions, and analysis on ways to deal with the pandemic and to provide data and information from research to the public.
The National Information and Knowledge Center was established and began operations immediately after the virus erupted in Israel and issued its first report on March 28, 2020 – before the Health Ministry command center was set up. It was headed by a Military Intelligence officer with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and included teams of several officers and soldiers from Military Intelligence, mostly from the Research Division’s technology branch with the assistance of civilian health experts.
The Information and Knowledge Center dealt with two major issues pertaining to handling of the coronavirus: Observing how countries around the world dealt with the pandemic, and monitoring the developing situation in Israel – including the state of the pandemic and morbidity levels in relation to the resources and capabilities at its disposal.
During the period that it operated, the Center published 748 reports on various issues – from daily reports and analysis to reviews of the global state of the pandemic and reports on specific issues such as the efficacy of masks, super-spreaders, variant distribution and more.
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Colonel N, who headed the Center, wrote in a paper that “establishing the Center was an initiative that came from below rather than a planned organizational decision.” In fact, the decision to establish the Knowledge Center was born out of a meeting between N and a division head at the Health Ministry and came to life thanks to several officers from the Military Intelligence Research Division who volunteered their services.
N also noted that “the Research Division has for many years been sharing the responsibility for epidemiological research. This responsibility comes to play in the arena of technological intelligence, which formally deals with identification of pandemics, but in practice, in routine times, very little attention is devoted to it.”
Col. N recalled how “as the Center developed and grew, more input was required to answer the growing needs of ‘pandemic intelligence’. This came at the expense of other Military Intelligence missions and there were voices that expressed reservations whether Military Intelligence should participate in this mission in view of the unique challenges that it bears sole responsibility for.”
Reservations were also expressed by members of the medical and research communities who were surprised and even outraged by the choice of Military Intelligence to carry out information gathering missions on the coronavirus and the choice of it as a body carrying weight among decision makers in the worst health crisis Israel had ever known. This despite its well-known intelligence gathering and analysis capabilities.
Despite the criticism, the standing and contribution of the Military Intelligence run Knowledge Center were evident in the early stages of the pandemic at a time when there was an “intelligence fog” when it came to the Health Ministry’s data and information infrastructures were still in their infancy. Later on in the pandemic, medical personnel, academics and data analysts established external forums that provided analysis, forecasts and models for decision makers. At the same time, the information was made more accessible to the public with the establishment of the Health Ministry coronavirus dashboard that was available for all to access. Great transparency and accessibility to data led to many private analysis initiatives and the production of reliable information thus reducing dependency on data provided by Military Intelligence.
However, the establishment of the Military Intelligence team led the Health Ministry to understand the need for health systems to establish teams – be they internal or external – responsible for data analysis and creation of real time intelligence in pandemic scenarios.
In January, the Health Ministry published a tender to operate systems aimed at curbing COVID chains of infection among the general, ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities, and to operate flight and border desks.
Prof. Ran Balitzer, head of the research division at Clalit Health Services HMO and the head of the Coronavirus Cabinet advising the Health Ministry, said: “The IDF Information and Knowledge Center was an island of stability and excellence throughout the crisis. In my view, the Center provided objective and high level position papers on a constant basis at its initiative. The uniqueness of the Center was its ability to take the initiative and create a situation assessment almost in real time, despite constant changes in the national and international situation, and an unprecedented rate of accumulation of official and unofficial data."
A Health Ministry spokesman said: "The COVID-19 National Information and Knowledge Center was set up by the Research Division of Military Intelligence in March 2020 in order to assist the State of Israel by implementing methods and tools from the world of military intelligence research to manage the coronavirus crisis.”
The spokesman added that the Health Ministry decided to establish an in house health intelligence body that will replace the COVID-19 National Information and Knowledge Center, carry the responsibilities of future health crises and assist with data collection. The spokesperson said that Military Intelligence and the Health Ministry have been working on a gradual handover of tasks and responsibilities over the last six months.