Battling the Coronavirus with the Latest in Tech

Smart robots and other solutions for patients under quarantine provide a lesson in quick adaptability

By Terrance J. Mintner • February 28, 2020

Bacteria | Unsplash

“Release us and save us from the Coronavirus that wants to eliminate all mortals.” This prayer, addressed to the “Master of the Universe,” was written on a little green card and given to me the other day by a man with a grave look on his face.

Many in Israel, religious and secular alike, are fearing the worst even though other countries have been hit much harder.

In Italy cases of the coronavirus have surged in recent days. Some observers there have gone so far as to liken it to “the Plague” or the Black Death that ravaged Italy and the rest of Europe in the medieval period. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte called for calm last week. “It’s time to turn down the tone; we need to stop the panic,” he said. With over 1,000 confirmed cases and 29 deaths, the country has been on lockdown.

Many fear we’re on the verge of a pandemic. Judging from the etymology of the word – pan meaning “all” and demos “people” from the Greek – we’re already there. So far, the virus has sickened over 87,000 people in at least 53 countries and led to almost 3,000 deaths.

The question now (and meaning of “pandemic”) is how easily will the virus spread from person to person?

Technically known as COVID-19, the coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan, China, in late December. Since then, economies have been hit, numerous flights canceled, isolation centers set up, and authorities sent scrambling. In the U.S. there have been 70 cases of the virus and one death.   

The coronavirus – named after the crown or halo-like appearance of sugary proteins protruding from it – can infect both people and animals, causing a range of respiratory illnesses, from the common cold to more perilous conditions such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Adding to the panic is fear of the unseen: Carriers of the virus can infect others days before the symptoms begin to manifest in themselves.  

It’s a frightening situation, to say the least, but any good that comes out of it will depend on how quickly we can prepare for this virus and future ones. In this, technology is vital.  

Many recall the SARS outbreak of 2003. In that one, healthcare workers made up a large share of those infected. They needed to attend to patients with the virus and didn’t have the kind of advanced technology needed to minimize contact between them.

An Israeli company called Robotemi unexpectedly found a solution when it developed a smart mobile robot called Temi (pronounced “Timmy”). Initially, it was developed as a personal robot. It could follow you around the house while playing music and videos, interact with your home’s smart devices, perform video calling, and order takeout.

Ev | Unsplash

“Healthcare is one of our sectors, but we didn’t plan originally to have the Temi robot assist with diseases such as this one because we didn’t expect such a crisis. But it turned out we do have something to offer,” Yaron Yoels, the CMO of Robotemi, told Spectory. 

“The whole idea of using the Temi to assist with the coronavirus actually came from our distributors in Asia – in South Korea, Hong Kong and China itself. The initiative was to provide the robot with a tray that can hold food and beverages and a thermometer for taking your temperature,” he added.

The robot has the telepresence feature which involves a video-camera, screen, and speakers. It allows patients, their loved ones and doctors to communicate and interact via remote locations. The robot has wheels and can move around autonomously.

“The Temi provides a really good solution for those people in quarantine who want to communicate with the outside world, and for medical staff to provide food and beverages to patients without having to get close to them,” Yoels concluded. 

For entrepreneurs, it’s a good lesson in adaptability. When a crisis like the coronavirus hits how can products and services be modified quickly to provide lifesaving solutions?

The Temi has been a great help in hospitals in Asia where the coronavirus is strongest. The robot has also been deployed in Israeli medical facilities. So far, Israel has been fortunate. There have been only a few cases involving Israelis and foreign tourists who are now under quarantine.

A few weeks ago, Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan took in 11 Israeli citizens who were on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship off the coast of Japan. The Japanese government put the American-owned ship under quarantine in early February after the coronavirus was detected among passengers.

Most of the 11 are still in a quarantined complex off the main hospital campus at Sheba. Three of them have been diagnosed with the virus. Since a vaccination for it would take months to develop and test, medical experts agree that isolation is currently the best way to stem its spread.

But the people at Sheba had to move fast. They had a few days to prepare the isolated facility, implement tech innovations, and develop a protocol.

‘We are not minimizing contact. We are doing this with zero contact’

“This is very unique scenario,” Dr. Gadi Segal, Head of Internal Medicine at Sheba, told Spectory. Most of the 11 Israelis in his care are elderly and not knowledgeable about technology, he explained.

“I am doing telemedicine without any contact with them,” he added. “Therefore, this is the first human trial we are doing here in Israel and it has been very successful. We are not minimizing contact. We are doing this with zero contact.”

Segal has also been busy writing the methodology for this and similar cases. He is trying to understand how to use a combination of digital platforms – Uniper, EarlySense, Datos, and Chameleon, an electronic medical record – to maximum effect. 

“We’re are on the verge of a pandemic. So, this unique experiment should be spread. Hospitals and governments must do very rapid and complex preparations to acquire these capabilities,” Segal concluded.

While the coronavirus is a great scare for many around the world, it should push us to innovate further.

New products could be developed to ward off future viruses, from wearables that can take our body measurements to advanced self-assessment digital kits. Apps tapping into real-time data could give us the precise number and distribution of those infected, and how best to protect ourselves.

That could be our silver lining.

Face Mask| Freepik

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