A top-flight Israeli medical innovation centre has been crunching the development of leading edge COVID-19 related health projects from years down to weeks, including a rapid test kit that will cost under a dollar a test.
When the pandemic hit Israel in February, Dr Eyal Zimlichman, the Deputy Director and Chief Innovation Officer at the world-famous Sheba Medical Centre in Tel Aviv found himself involved in an innovation “storm.”
“When Sheba ran into COVID back in late February, I call it the perfect storm, because from that point, on we’ve had an immense number of innovations, of patents and commercialisation of products,” said Dr Zimlichman.
Dr Zimlichman heads up Sheba Medical Centre’s ARC (Accelerate Redesign Collaborate) Innovation Centre which harnesses innovators, scientists, startups, high-level developers, large corporate companies, investors, and academia under one roof.
He will be speaking (virtually) on October 21 at the 2020 Australia Israel Innovation Summit in a session dealing with innovation and the global healthcare sector.
One of the innovations ARC has generated in the course of the pandemic is a new type of ventilator which was developed from scratch to full scale production in just over a month, rather than years.
The ventilator was developed in conjunction with an Israeli Army engineering unit., with a combined team of 150 people working at emergency pace.
“In about five weeks, we took an idea to a proof of concept to animal testing and then to actually using it on actual patients. Usually that would take years,” said Dr Zimlichman.
The unit is being mass manufactured with the help of the Israeli Air Force industry and the ventilators are being stockpiled for use if there is a severe second wave of COVID-19 infections.
Sheba’s ARC teams are also working on big data and artificial intelligence applications to combat COVID-19 and a rapid virus test using spectroscopy techniques.
“The test is very, very quick. The technology we are looking at is able to identify the virus within about 15 seconds and the cost per test is less than $1. It could be revolutionary. We’re still in the latter testing phase of this and we’re hopeful that in a few weeks we will be able to come up with an announcement, hopefully a positive one.”
“If this comes through it will be a huge benefit because, you will be able to put this at the entrance to schools, airports, and workplaces where you will be able to test people as they come to work in the morning.”
Dr Zimlichman has visited Australia and his centre is looking to sign up some partnerships with health innovators here.
He believes Australia could lift its game when it comes to producing healthcare innovations.
“Research is a continuum where you have on one end, basic research and on the other side of that continuum, you have innovation – very hands on practical solutions. This is where maybe there is some need for improvement in Australia, as far as I have seen, in terms of increasing innovation efforts, especially within institutions.
“We see with institutions that have very strong research backgrounds and infrastructure, it’s easier for them to make the leap into innovation. We’ve seen this in leading academic medical centres in the US and in Israel, as well. But we haven’t seen in parts of Europe, or in Australia.”
Dr Zimlichman is confident that science will prevail over COVID-19, although until vaccines arrive we are going to have to rely on methods that originated in medieval times with a dash of twenty-first century testing and contact tracing.
“Even in 2020, we’re still reverting back to the old tactics of lockdowns and masks which had been around for centuries,” he said.
“That said, I’m pretty hopeful and optimistic science will prevail and we’re going to see the vaccines having a major impact, whether it’s in a few months or a year from now. That’s going to be the way to come out of this.”
As for the often-severe conflict between medical experts and politicians keen to get past lockdowns, social distancing and mask wearing and into the clearer political air of economic recovery, Dr Zimlichman is not surprised.
Our current medical regimes for combatting COVID-19 extract a heavy burden. “It’s not outrageous when you think about it,” said Dr Zimlichman of the societal and political pushback against lockdowns and social distancing.
“These are the tools we’re going to have to implement at a very high rate of compliance.”
However, people need to understand that health prevails over all else. “Keeping yourself alive is better than going out of business,” said Dr Zimlichman.