Special Report: Start-up nation versus the virus

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Special Report: Start-up nation versus the virus

As Israel is hit by a second wave, a new book by Jodie Cohen explores companies aiming to halt the spread

The 3D-printed sticker known as ‘Maya’
The 3D-printed sticker known as ‘Maya’

The number of coronavirus cases around the world is approaching 12 million. Roughly half of those have recovered, and over half a million people have died.

As the numbers rise around the world, a newly released book by Jewish News freelance special political reports writer, Jodie Cohen, suggests there is room for optimism.

Tikkun Olam: Israel vs Covid-19 reports on more than 40 Israeli innovations that were developed between the onset of the virus and early May 2020. 

It provides a snapshot of work that has been carried out around the clock in the ‘start-up nation’ by scientists, doctors, CEOs and non-governmental organisations, in their efforts to tikkun olam, or heal
the world.

Cohen researched, conducted interviews and wrote the book during her second month of lockdown in Israel. It covers innovations in the areas of preventing the further spread of the virus, testing, caring for patients, research into potential treatments and the race for
a vaccine.

“Every day in the news, I saw more and more stories of Israeli research, innovations and start-ups pivoting their technologies in an attempt to do something to help,” explains Cohen.  

“Israeli society is used to having to be agile, with unexpected sirens and rockets disrupting everyday life. 

“As a result, Israelis tend to work flexibly and fast, and this was particularly demonstrated after the pandemic appeared.”

Here, Cohen highlights some of the key innovations that particularly stand out…


Meet ‘Maya’ 

Maya  =is a 3D-printed sticker, developed by the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, led by Professor Eyal Zussman. The innovative sticker, which is named after Zussman’s daughter, who was the first person to trial it, contains nanofibers coated with antiseptics. Stuck onto surgical masks, the team says the sticker significantly upgrades protection, and is able to capture and kill nanoparticles of 99 percent of viruses from droplets that reach the mask. 

The Technion is working in collaboration with the Covid-19 National Emergency Team of the Defense Ministry’s Directorate of Defense R&D. In April, Israel’s Ministry of Health gave initial approval for a pilot to assess the adaptability of medical staff to the sticker, to take place at the government-owned Galilee Medical Center in northern Israel. 

Initial results suggest medical staff feel more confident when wearing the sticker than with the surgical mask alone. By April, the hospital had already begun to share the stickers with other hospitals around Israel and had also been approached by medical centres abroad. Next steps are to work with a factory to develop mass production so it can send the stickers to more hospitals, and make them also available to members of the public. 

The 3D-printed sticker known as ‘Maya’

Helping to speed up COVID-19 diagnoses

The biomed division of BATM, which is based in Hod Hasharon in Israel and has branches in several countries, is well known for infectious diseases diagnostics. Last December, BATM says its team suspected something very ‘non-kosher’ was happening in China. Dr Zvi Marom, BATM’s CEO and chairman of the Israeli High-Tech Association, alerted the government and Israeli industry. 

Jodie Cohen’s new book: Tikkun Olam: Israel vs COVID-19 is available on Amazon and at other online and retail bookstores. Follow the blog at www.TikkunOlamIsrael.com

BATM units in Israel and Italy were put on high alert to produce fast diagnostic tests for Covid-19. Collaboration with several universities and research institutions, which work regularly with BATM, was enhanced as well. The result was that by May, the company had produced several tests that can diagnose Covid-19, and help to speed up diagnosis. 

BATM has also partnered with Israeli life sciences company, Novamedis, to develop a diagnostic kit that does not require specialist training. This means that people should be able to test themselves for Covid-19 in their own homes, allowing them to self-isolate and consult with their doctor. The company hopes to release this test by September this year.

‘Helping the helpers’ by building resilience  

Israel’s largest non-governmental humanitarian aid agency, IsraAID, has 14 long-term missions spanning Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. IsraAID has experience responding to numerous health-related epidemics and disasters around the world, directly helping more than 250,000 people, and indirectly helping many more. 

IsraAid offers support in many countries

Recognising that stress management is crucial to an effective emergency response, the organisation launched stress management webinars in early March for Chinese first responders and mental health workers. 

The webinars focused on developing personal resilience and positive coping mechanisms, and offered a forum for participants to discuss relevant psychosocial issues arising from Covid-19.  As the virus spread, so, too, has IsraAID’s work, providing support to health teams in South Korea, Italy, and the US, as well as wherever each of IsraAID’s 14 field teams are on the ground. The organisation says that next steps are to provide long-term mental health support and to help rebuild health care systems in affected countries.

Helping the private sector search for a cure 

CytoReason calls itself the global hub of pharma R&D data. It aggregates proprietary data from different companies across the industry, and uses it to train its computational models of human diseases. 

In other words, on a computer, scientists and doctors can see precisely what happens to the body on a molecular level when it is fighting an illness. 

CytoReason collects Covid-19 data globally

The company says this is helping pharma and biotech companies to develop drugs for diseases such as cancer and diabetes, and to understand how a patient might respond to new treatments. 

When Covid-19 emerged, the company began collecting Covid-19-related data around the world and built a model aggregating the data, so it says it is the most accurate available. 

It says it is making this model available free of charge to all pharma customers across the world who are working on finding a treatment. The model is helping these companies understand if their drug could help patients with Covid-19. 

Going forwards, CytoReason will continue looking out for, and tracking, new Covid-19 outcomes, and building its models to help speed up the development of new therapies. The company is also working to make its platform accessible enough so people can download and use it from the web, without the need for special training.

A potential COVID-19 vaccination 

The MIGAL Galilee Research Institute Ltd is internationally-recognised for its research. In 2016, it established a centre of excellence, looking at vaccines for viruses such as the influenza, Newcastle disease and reovirus. 

As part of its work, MIGAL researchers developed a new oral vaccine for infectious bronchitis virus (IBV), an avian coronavirus. This was designed so it could be quickly adapted to virus mutation. Pre-clinical trials carried out by the Israeli Veterinary Institute showed that the vaccine for the poultry
coronavirus was effective. 

When Covid-19 emerged and its genetic sequence was published, researchers found that the poultry coronavirus was genetically very similar – in fact, nearly identical – to the human coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. As a result, following genetic adjustments, the same scientific concepts were applied to transform the avian vaccine to the human vaccine. 

Human testing is still needed and, if proven effective, MIGAL’s proposed vaccine would be taken orally, which could make it more readily accessible to the general public. 

MIGAL has licensed the technology to MigVax Ltd, its fully-owned subsidiary, to develop, manufacture and commercialise the oral vaccine. In May, it was announced that crowdfunding platform OurCrowd is leading investment of $12 million (£9.5m) into MigVax to help speed up efforts towards development.

“We don’t yet know which innovations, treatments and vaccines will go on to be proven effective or adopted widely,” explains Cohen. “Many are in the various stages of testing, but all are in use in hospitals and medical settings. 

“What is clear, however, is that there are so many innovations in the pipeline that there is cause for optimism. Especially as we face the second wave, facing reality with optimism is more important than ever.”

  •  Tikkun Olam: Israel vs COVID-19 is available on Amazon and at other online and retail bookstores. Follow the blog at www.TikkunOlamIsrael.com


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