By voice or location, Israeli apps can determine your risk of coronavirus

Israeli developers working on applications to track spread of COVID-19, while country’s largest hospital makes strides with telemedicine to protect staff

An iPhone running the Health Ministry's HaMagen app, which aims to track the spread of the novel coronavirus and warn users if they have interacted with someone infected. (Sam Sokol)
An iPhone running the Health Ministry's HaMagen app, which aims to track the spread of the novel coronavirus and warn users if they have interacted with someone infected. (Sam Sokol)

One app tells you if you’ve been in the vicinity of a coronavirus carrier and another aims to assess whether you have COVID-19 based on the sound of your voice.

In Israel, sometimes dubbed the “startup nation” with nearly 10 percent of workers employed in high-tech, the coronavirus pandemic has seen a flurry of new technologies designed to contain transmission.

The not-for-profit Start-Up Nation Central has compiled a directory of some 70 Israeli technology companies developing responses to the new virus, which has infected more than 4,000 people in the country.

One app that stands out is Hamagen, Hebrew for “the shield,” launched earlier this month by the Health Ministry. It is available for Android phones on Google Play, and iPhone at the App Store.

Magen David Adom paramedics wearing protective clothing as a preventive measure against the coronavirus at the scene of an emergency call in Jerusalem, March 28, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Using geolocation technology, the app informs users about any points of contact with known COVID-19 cases.

Available in five languages, Hamagen has been downloaded by more than a million users.

The fortunate ones receive messages saying “no points of intersection have been found with coronavirus patients.”

“We’ll let you know if there is anything new,” it adds.

“The application is a technological means intended to give each and every one of us the ability to accurately and immediately know if we were in contact with a person who was infected with the coronavirus,” the Health Ministry said in a statement when the app was released, explaining that it was intended to streamline what was previously a cumbersome and inefficient process.

Previously, the ministry had published the epidemiological history of COVID-19 patients, listing all the places they had been while contagious and advising those who were at any of the locations at the same time to self-quarantine for 14 days. However, as the number of cases diagnosed each day leaped into dozens and then hundreds it rapidly became impractical for the public to review all the listings.

Hamagen was launched amid a controversy over plans to involve Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency in the fight against the virus.

Medical team members at the Barzilay hospital, in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, wear protective gear as they handle a coronavirus test sample on March 29, 2020. (Flash90)

Critics warned that allowing a powerful investigative body access to personal devices without a court order could mark an irrevocable setback in the effort to safeguard data protection.

The High Court ruled that any Shin Bet involvement required parliamentary oversight. The agency said that it has identified some 500 coronavirus carriers who subsequently tested positive for the disease.

The tracking, which uses cellphone location data, credit card purchase data and other digital information, aims to alert and order into quarantine people who were within two meters, for 10 minutes or more, of someone infected with the virus within the past two weeks.

Civil liberties groups have objected to the practice, as has the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians, which claims there is a “substantial possibility” of errors because of a lack of input by medical professionals, the Haaretz daily reported. The newspaper has already reported on several cases of mistaken identity which it says calls the tracking program’s effectiveness into question.

Hamagen, on the other hand, requires user consent and the Health Ministry has pledged that “GPS data does not leave your mobile phone, and is not sent to any third party.”

The ‘sound’ of coronavirus

The Defense Ministry has meanwhile offered support to an Israeli startup called Vocalis Health, which is developing an app capable of diagnosing COVID-19 based on the sound of someone’s voice.

“We are working around the clock,” Tal Wenderow, the startup’s co-founder, told AFP.

Voice samples from virus carriers in various stages of illness and samples from non-infected people are currently being collected, with the goal of developing an AI-based algorithm to detect COVID-19’s vocal “fingerprint.”

Health professionals will then be able to alert users in the early stages of the disease and use the app to monitor its spread across the population.

The response from people willing to give voice samples has been “overwhelming,” Wenderow said.

In addition to helping curb new infections, the app could also allow patients to be monitored at home, he added.

Screenshot (Vocalis Health)

Sheba Medical Center, the country’s largest hospital, has already been using nascent technologies to protect staff caring for coronavirus patients.

“The guiding principle is to make sure there is as little contact as necessary between medical teams and patients,” said Prof. Eyal Leshem, director of Sheba’s center for travel medicine and tropical diseases.

To that end, Sheba monitors patients in mild condition through “telemedicine,” which allows vital signs to be communicated to staff via sensors connected to a patient’s phone “without any need for direct contact,” Leshem told AFP.

“We used this in our in-patient treatment — now when we’re shifting from containment to mitigation, we’re going to start using the same technologies to monitor patients at home,” said Leshem.

Sheba also has an innovation and research center, which is working to collect “all metadata from COVID-19 patients.”

“As we have more and more data accumulated, we’ll be able to identify markers of severe disease, identify prognostic factors for hospitalized patients at all levels, and potentially use this data to identify treatment opportunities,” he said.

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