In India, Israel to test tech that can detect virus ‘in minutes’

Plane carrying some 20 Israeli officials and scientists, plus ventilators and novel devices that are not yet produced on a mass scale, to depart for Delhi in coming weeks

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Boxes of medical equipment in the Foreign Ministry storage room, waiting to be sent to India, July 2020 (courtesy MFA)
Boxes of medical equipment in the Foreign Ministry storage room, waiting to be sent to India, July 2020 (courtesy MFA)

Israel is planning to bring vital medical equipment to India in the coming weeks, including “groundbreaking technologies” that officials say could help advance the development of means to more effectively fight the coronavirus pandemic.

A plane carrying a delegation of some 20 Israeli officials and scientists and tons of gear — including ventilators and novel devices that are not yet produced on a mass scale — is to depart for Delhi “in the coming weeks,” Israeli officials said Thursday.

The “unprecedented” delivery is a joint project of the health, defense and foreign ministries and the office of India’s chief scientist, and has been weeks in the making, the Defense Ministry said in a press release.

Beside the delivery of conventional aid such as ventilators, the special plane to Delhi will also serve to bring technologies currently in the development stage to India so they can be tested on Indians who contracted the virus.

The ministry’s Directorate of Defense Research and Development has been spearheading the project to “carry out the final stages of research into advanced technologies for the speedy diagnosis of the coronavirus,” according to the press release.

The equipment to be shipped to India will include four “groundbreaking Israeli technologies” donated by the Foreign Ministry and the private sector geared to help the country deal with the pandemic, including one that aims to detect the virus through an analysis of a suspected patient’s voice.

“The four tech systems that will be tested are: voice test, breathalyzer test based on terra-hertz waves, isothermal test, and polyamino acids test,” according to the press release.

“What they all have in common is the ability to detect the presence of the virus in the body quickly — usually within minutes,” it said. “Developing diagnostic capabilities is a goal for the State of Israel and of many additional countries around the world. It is the most effective way to cut off ‘chains of infection,’ prevent prolonged quarantine and enable the reopening of the global economy.”

The Directorate of Defense Research and Development, known by its Hebrew acronym MAFAT, has in recent weeks successfully developed dozens of technologies that would dramatically decrease the time it takes to detect the coronavirus in suspected carriers, the Defense Ministry said.

Some of those are currently being clinically tested in Israel, “but in order to complete the research and to prove their effectiveness,” they need to be tested on a wider scale and with large numbers of coronavirus patients, the press release said.

Since massive trials with many carriers of the disease are not possible in Israel, the technologies are being brought to India, which has a much larger number of coronavirus patients. “The cooperation between Israel and India will enable the delegation to collect tens of thousands of samples within only 10 days, and to bring them to Israel for decoding in computer systems based on artificial intelligence,” according to the press release.

“The entire Defense Ministry is mobilized to fight the coronavirus,” said Defense Minister Benny Gantz. “We hope that the strenuous research and development led by MAFAT, together with our excellent academia and industries, will lead to a breakthrough that will change the way we diagnose and fight the virus.”

India has the third-highest number of cases, with over 1.2 million people infected. Nearly 30,000 Indians have died from the disease.

Relatives offer funeral prayers for a victim who died from the COVID-19 coronavirus, before the burial at a graveyard in New Delhi on July 6, 2020 (Sajjad HUSSAIN / AFP)

During a telephone briefing with diplomatic reporters, Israeli Ambassador to India Ron Malka said that all necessary licenses had been obtained to conduct the trials there.

He could not say whether the Indian coronavirus patients were paid for their participation or if they volunteered, and acknowledged that he had not checked whether human rights violations may be involved in the way the Indian authorities were selecting the patients for the project.

“India is the largest democracy in the world — it’s a friendly country and a democracy,” he said.

Malka, who will be on the plane to Delhi, also said the project was in part meant as a thank you to India for sending vital medical equipment to Israel during the first wave of the pandemic.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said there was “tremendous importance” in cooperating with India in the fight to stem the pandemic.

“This operation conveys a message of friendship and solidarity and is an opportunity for unique scientific and technological cooperation that can help Israel, India and the entire world deal with the epidemic and the economic crisis that accompanies it,” he said.

On June 10, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on the phone with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to express solidarity with the Indian people as they struggled with the pandemic. “The two leaders agreed on ways to increase and expand cooperation in various spheres,” a readout provided by the Prime Minister’s Office said. It was their third conversation since the virus started spreading globally.

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