By Jacob Nagel, Senior Fellow AND John Hannah, Senior Counselor, FDD
As its strategy to address the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, continues to develop, the United States should not overlook the important role that its most scientifically advanced international allies could play in helping both to mitigate the pandemic’s devastating consequences and, ultimately, defeat it. Among those partners, few may be as important in delivering life-saving technological innovations as Israel.
It should not have been a surprise when, near the start of the crisis, on March 8, Vice President Mike Pence, head of the U.S. coronavirus task force, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed in a phone call “to advance technological and scientific cooperation” to combat the deadly virus. In recent years, Israel has emerged as a veritable superpower in terms of its capabilities to develop cutting-edge technologies in both the national security and civilian realms. That is true not just in areas such as cybersecurity, missile defense, artificial intelligence (AI), space, and water purification, but in the fields of biotechnology and the life sciences as well.
In a country of only 9 million people, more than 1,400 companies operate in the medical innovation sector, developing transformative technologies to detect and treat an array of serious illnesses, including cancer, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s. These private sector actors are part of an extraordinarily rich biotech ecosystem that is supported by the government and also encompasses world-class academic institutions and medical centers with a proven track record of rapidly bringing life-saving breakthroughs to market.
In recognition of Israel’s role as a global hub of biotech excellence, billions of dollars in foreign investment have flowed to Israeli firms and research institutions over the past decade. Many of the world’s largest corporations in the area of biotechnology and medical services, including Pfizer, Merck, and Johnson & Johnson, have established research and development (R&D) centers and startup incubators in the Jewish state.
Like the United States and other countries around the world, Israel has mobilized its entire society to combat COVID-19 and mitigate its impacts. While biotech companies, academic institutions, and medical researchers are naturally on the front lines of the effort to forge technological solutions, they have also been joined by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the Ministry of Defense’s (MOD’s) Directorate of Defense Research and Development, and Israel’s legacy defense firms. In addition to their traditional focus on building the advanced technological systems necessary to protect Israel and defeat its enemies, these organizations have now taken on a major role in fighting the virus, drawing on their enormous pool of skilled manpower and creatively repurposing existing military technologies to support out-of-the-box solutions that reduce the threat.
Israel has defined several main vectors for battling COVID-19 in the short term, including: rapid identification of virus carriers; short-circuiting the virus’ transmission to larger populations; building accurate models that analyze all relevant data to understand the virus’ behavior and inform “exit strategies” for reopening society once infection rates flatten; and developing better tools for treating hospitalized patients while protecting medical personnel. Over the longer term, of course, the goal is to develop effective anti-viral therapies and, ultimately, an efficient vaccine that will dramatically reduce the threat posed by the virus.
While it is impossible to capture the full scope of the technological firepower that Israel is deploying in the war against COVID-19, even a short list of examples drawn from the work being done by two organizations with which one of the authors (Nagel) is intimately familiar is impressive – the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, and a special IDF/MOD technology task force.
At the Technion, more than 30 labs have halted their usual research to devote their energies to fighting COVID-19, including the following examples:
— Knowing that the main cause of death from the virus is Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, teams are working on new ways to deliver medicine directly to the lungs, as well as on a treatment for bolstering compromised lung function, known as Liquid Foam Therapy.
— Another research group has developed a nano-fiber (based on technology invented to detect explosives) that converts a standard face mask into a high-grade medical mask that offers maximum protection to healthcare professionals.
— An “artificial nose” technology developed at the Technion for detecting cancers is being applied to help diagnose pre-symptomatic carriers using a breath test, and to monitor the virus using a thin patch attached to the arm or chest.
— Several teams are developing accelerated, less invasive methods to test for the virus, including tests that use simple blood and saliva samples.
— To better protect hospital staffs, Technion scientists have developed remote systems that use robots and advanced sensors to monitor patients and administer medicines.
— The Technion’s world-renowned AI group has adapted sophisticated algorithms to help limit and stop the spread of the virus in certain areas.
— A system is being developed that could be crucial for long-term surveillance by monitoring waste water in sewers for virus RNA.
— To surmount the shortage of ventilators, a revolutionary innovation is being explored that adapts existing hospital oxygen systems using micro-turbine engines.
The special IDF/MOD technology task force formed more than 15 expert groups exploring revolutionary innovations to battle the virus, including the following examples:
— One project is exploring an AI system based on voice monitoring of infected persons that can detect an audio “finger print” when their health starts to deteriorate. The same system might also be applied to gather voice samples in large crowds to help identify virus carriers and stop them from infecting others.
— A major effort is underway to build a model based on cell phone data, using several unique technological methods and algorithms developed for counter terrorism, to trace the routes and contacts of the infected before they were symptomatic.
— Another multi-pronged effort is focused on using existing military technologies (drones, electro-magnetic technology, and other methods) to rapidly disinfect both large geographic areas as well as infected facilities and critical medical supplies.
— The task force is also exploring the use of radars for remote sensing of infected patients and reading their symptoms.
Hundreds of other Israeli organizations, both public and private, are similarly working to develop technological breakthroughs that will help contain the virus and allow economies to safely restart until a medicine and/or vaccine emerges. Thousands of the world’s most accomplished scientists and engineers from the life sciences and many other disciplines have set aside their usual work and research to focus full-time on the war against the pandemic.
Leveraging Israeli innovation to bolster America’s own efforts to combat COVID-19 should be a priority for the Trump administration. The two countries already have long experience working together to develop technological solutions to important challenges in both the civilian and military arenas. The U.S.-Israel Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation has been promoting mutually beneficial joint R&D civilian projects for more than 40 years. On the military side, U.S. funding has supported cooperation between Israeli and American companies to develop cutting-edge anti-terror technologies, Israeli missile defense systems such as Arrow and David’s Sling, and more. In an important recent development, Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Gary Peters (D-MI) are proposing the establishment of a U.S.-Israel Operations/Technology Working Group that would institutionalize R&D cooperation to address the full spectrum of common capabilities gaps faced by both militaries.
Facing a once-in-a-century global pandemic that threatens the socio-economic wellbeing of billions of people around the world, the need to further intensify technological cooperation between the United States and Israeli has never been greater. The economic, social, and geopolitical stakes for both countries are difficult to fully fathom but almost certainly will be far-reaching and enormous.
Brigadier General (res.) Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a visiting professor at the Technion Faculty of Aerospace Engineering. He previously served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s acting national security advisor and head of Israel’s National Security Council. He was also the former deputy director of the Israeli Ministry of Defense’s Directorate of Defense Research and Development. John Hannah is senior counselor at FDD and a former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney. They both contribute to FDD’s Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation (CCTI) and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Jacob, John, CCTI, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CCTI and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.