Coronavirus Fightback: Even Israel's Top Secret Unit 81 Has Just Broken Cover For COVID-19
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Unit 81 is one of Israel’s most secretive military intelligence units. Charged with developing technologies to support combat operations, the unit is even more hidden away than the better-known Unit 8200 within the same AMAN intel corps. And so the fact Unit 81 has now broken cover to publicize its work in combatting COVID-19 is just the latest example of the unprecedented nature of the virus and the fightback.
One of Unit’s 81’s senior intelligence officers described this to me as “our mission,” to do whatever it takes to help fight the biggest problem the world is now facing. Solutions developed by its high-tech teams would be shared online, he said.
Israel’s (currently care-taker) prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has declared a state of emergency to battle the “invisible enemy.” Last weekend, he sanctioned cyber tools to track potential infections, the first time such tech has been used on civilians. Now we have new emergency regulations. “This is not a recommendation nor a request but an order that will be enforced,” Netanyahu said on March 19. “This is a decision unlike any other since the founding of the Jewish State.”
Now the Israel Defense Forces has publicly announced that Unit 81 “will help provide solutions for some of the medical challenges following the Corona crisis.” And it has been left to innovation teams in Units such as 81 to go find problems and develop solutions—some of which have come from their own military experience.
Right now, the senior intel officer explained, they are converting BiPAP home ventilator units to supplement the fully functioning ones in hospitals across the country, readying for the potential surge in patients requiring such treatment. And when those patients are admitted, another Unit 81 effort is to contain airflow within hospital rooms, ensuring that “we do not expose room to air coming from patient.”
Unit 81 is also building something similar for ambulances. What started as an exercise to protect military drivers ferrying infected soldiers has now expanded. The so-called “shields,” now in manufacturing, protect drivers’ cabs from the rest of the ambulance, separating the aircon, creating a contained environment. Unit 81 told me this has been exceptionally well-received by those responsible out in the field. There are 150 ambulances likely to be equipped in the coming weeks.
The work on ambulances comes in addition to the development of face masks. Unit 81’s ambition is to make upwards of 1,000 each day and distribute these to doctors and nurses, paramedics and other medical staff up and down the country.
The team is also working on software for hospitals that can store and analyse patient data, infection tracking, test results, providing hospitals with data to help them make sense of what they’re seeing and how best to combat the everyday challenge.
There will be “more things to come,” I was told. Following the most recent meeting with the country’s hospital system, Unit 81 wants to identify broken ventilators in the system that can be fixed and put back to work. A mix of innovation, engineering and software development. It’s easy to see how a military approach to battlefield technology development helps in such unprecedented circumstances.
Israeli military intelligence is among the most advanced world-wide. Defense technologies in general lead the world in innovation and capability. If we can now see quick fixes to today’s problems from these projects, fixes shared around the world, then we will be all the better for it. All countries are now facing the same challenges—some are simply more able than others to deal with them.
Beyond the next few months, the hope will then be that these innovations better equip our healthcare systems and our response teams for what comes next.
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