Innovation’s potential in crisis: COVID-19 lessons from Israel

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Rafael Harpaz, ambassador of Israel to the Philippines, highlighted practices in Israel's response to COVID-19 such as halting flights, tapping on technologies, stocking protective equipment, transitioning local industries into producing medical equipment, working on vaccine development projects, and isolating towns and villages with a high percentage of confirmed cases. Art by Joy D. Dagun

By Adrian Paul B. Conoza
Special Features Writer, BusinessWorld

Israeli diplomats share insights from their ‘startup’ nation’s COVID-19 response

The global fight against the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has reaped noteworthy practices from countries that have recently been easing up their restrictions.

Aside from nearby countries who had successfully tackled the spread of the disease in their areas, the middle-eastern country of Israel is noted for its quick and exemplary response to COVID-19.

In the second leg of the Asian Institute of Management’s (AIM) International Best Practice Series, representatives from the Embassy of the State of Israel in the Philippines shared the country’s experience in dealing with the pandemic, particularly pointing out the factors that made the state prepared to deal with it and the lessons they have learned in responding to COVID-19.

Backed by a strong economy, R&D


Rafael Harpaz, ambassador of Israel to the Philippines, finds the country’s economic development, especially in terms of establishing startups and spending on research and development, as one of its strengths that made it much capable to respond to the crisis.

While the country’s economy is based mainly on export, according to Mr. Harpaz, it is very much notable for hi-tech industries rapidly developing there.

“There are no miracles in economy. It involves government involvement into the economy, giving incentives to startups, higher education, and entrepreneurship character, which is something typical for Israelis,” the ambassador said of the country’s economic development.

Israel has over 6,000 startups, according to Mr. Harpaz, among them mobility-as-a-service solutions company Moovit, which was recently acquired by technology company Intel.

Mr. Harpaz also sees strength in the country’s generous expenditure on research and development.”This is the heart of the Israeli economy. We are having a high percentage; 4.25% of our GDP goes to R&D. That’s the highest in the world,” he stressed.

Mr. Harpaz highlighted practices in Israel’s response to COVID-19 such as halting flights, tapping on technologies, stocking protective equipment through Israel’s ambassadors, transitioning local industries into producing medical equipment, working on vaccine development projects, and isolating towns and villages with a high percentage of confirmed cases.

In terms of technology, the ambassador recalled a mobile application as an example. “If we have somebody who has [coronavirus] and you walk in the street, your cellphone will indicate that you’re close to somebody who has [coronavirus],” he said.

The lessons that can be learned from Israel, for Mr. Harpaz, include the potential of technology during crises, the importance of a strong health system, and bracing for the unknown.

“The countries that will be at the forefront of scientific, economic, and [technological developments] will be the ones that will move faster when we go out of this crisis,” he said. “The experiences demonstrated that crises are [catalysts] for technological innovation and developments…Because of our startup capacity and innovation mentality, I think Israel can be there.

“During this COVID-19, every day there are new things we don’t know, so we need to be aware that we might have surprises,” he further advised.

He applied this alertness to Israel’s expanded testing capacity. “We have more than half a million people tested already out of nine million, and we now have a potential to do another 300,000 serological tests to check if they already had the disease so that [do not contaminate],” he said.

According to the ambassador, Israel has recently resumed its business “at a very fast pace” and has opened its schools as well. Nonetheless, it implements an exit strategy that consists of a recovery plan funded at 21 billion US dollars, an upgrade of their health system, and preparation for the second wave of COVID-19 cases.

“The risk of the second wave is here. We are aware of this. So, social distancing is very important. Public transportation is existing but very limited,” he explained.

Innovative approach

YuliaRachinsky-Spivakov, deputy chief of mission at the country’s Israeli embassy, further highlighted Israel’s richness in technology, from which innovative solutions to COVID-19 have been discovered and utilized.

As a small country with a challenging environment, Ms. Rachinsky-Spivakov shared, Israel has served as a breeding ground for innovation.

“[Compared to] Metro Manila, we are not that very big. It’s also located in a very challenging environment, and it faces a lot of security challenges. Those are the main reasons that brought Israelis to think out of the box and find ways to overcome those challenges,” she said.

She also attributes this abundance of innovation to education, as “Israelis are educated to challenge the authority and to think about solutions to difficult situations.”

A wide array of solutions out of collaborations between scientists, entrepreneurs, and institutions have emerged in the current situation, as the deputy chief of mission showcased.

The solutions were clustered into four major sectors. The first one focuses on the prevention of further contamination of COVID-19. Startup Viziblezone, for instance, which specializes in avoiding car accidents by keeping distance between cars, has adapted its technology to find a solution for monitoring social distancing in the workplace.

Another company, Soapy, developed hand-washing micro-stations that use special plant-based ingredients that kill viruses like COVID-19.

Even the military industry, a strong one in Israel, has done its share in the fight against COVID-19. Engineers from aerospace and aviation manufacturer Israel Aerospace Industries developed ultraviolet-light technology that makes the elimination of virus safer and easier.

Other preventive technologies presented include 3D printers for producing face masks and self-sterilizing fiber for masks and personal protective equipment.

There are also innovations that aim for effective testing, Ms. Rachinsky-Spivakov continued. Out of a collaboration between Israel’s defense ministry and artificial intelligence-based platform Vocalis Health, vocal fingerprints can be used for diagnosing COVID-19.

“There is no need of direct contact [between] patient and medical staff, and of course it can be done from a distance and eliminate any further contamination,” the deputy chief stressed.

She also noted the recent development from an Israeli university of a one-minute test that reportedly uses samples from the breath or nose swabs to identify carriers.

AI has also been observed to be useful in increasing daily testing capacity without requiring additional staff. “Israelis are working intensively on different developments or uses of how AI can assist us in this battle,” she said.

Under the development of vaccine, Ms. Rachinsky-Spivakovadded, several innovations have been in progress. These include using advanced computer systems for developing antibodies designed that will fight the virus and reformulating poultry flu vaccine to an oral vaccine against COVID-19.

“Our research institutions came to the conclusion that the shortest way is to try using existing biological materials [and] existing treatments [or] vaccinations that we have to fight against other diseases,” she noted.

Innovations have also been applied in the field of treatment. Telemedicine is observed to provide a contamination-free solution to patients, as exemplified by Israel’s Sheba Hospital which has developed a home apparatus based on telemedicine to monitor COVID-19 patients.

Placenta cells have been employed as well in Israel for treatment. Referred to as ‘compassion treatment’, placenta cells are given to patients on which “no [other] medical treatment can help them anymore based on the professional [findings] of the medical staff”.

For the deputy chief, the key lessons from Israel’s fight are the government’s unified approach, the strong cooperation between private and public sector, and the large participation of research institutions and universities.

“There is a lot of opportunities for cooperation,” Ms. Rachinsky-Spivakov said. “The fact that we are facing global challenges, that we share the same threats, is making us closer. Nevertheless, we have to take into account that every country has its own unique characteristic, so there is no tailor-made solution for everybody.”