As the coronavirus pandemic put the State of Israel into an unprecedented lockdown last month, the Defense Ministry’s Directorate of Production and Procurement, which usually deals with the acquisition and maintenance of military equipment, suddenly changed course.
In less than four weeks, after launching a series of massive operations spanning the globe, the DOPP has transformed the readiness of the Israeli health care system for dealing with the pandemic. The organization’s head, Avi Dadon, spoke to JNS and provided an insider’s look into those historic efforts.
The DOPP usually deals with items such as tanks and planes, but it had, on occasion, purchased a small number of ventilators for the IDF Medical Corps in past years. “It was under the radar — something I’d only know about afterwards,” said Dadon. Then, on March 13, ventilators, together with other lifesaving medical equipment, suddenly became the main target for the DOPP.
Dadon attended intensive discussions that Friday at the Kirya, site of the Israel Defense Forces’ national headquarters and Defense Ministry, and learned of the mammoth new tasks his organization now faced.
“The first thing we needed to take care of was the setting up of hotel recovery centers for coronavirus patients in good condition,” he said. “The idea was to give hospitals more space and not overload them because our concern was to make sure that hospitals don’t crash under the burden of caring for patients in good condition, together with critical patients and those who need to be ventilated,” he said.
A day later, Dadon and a number of hotel managers had a signed contract at hand with an agreement to activate it within just two days. Hundreds of COVID-19 patients began streaming into the newly established isolation centers, leaving hospitals able to focus on those who really needed them. The initiative then grew with time, encompassing hotel isolation centers for populations with their own sensitivities, like haredi patients, and acting as quarantine centers for new international arrivals.
‘We have to rely on ourselves and produce’
Dadon describes the project as an excellent example of inter-ministerial and inter-agency cooperation.
“The Interior Ministry stipulated what was needed, the IDF Home Front Command took care of the how, and we arranged contracts that struck a balance between reasonable costs and providing a service for civilians,” he explained. “The rest is history.”
On April 21, Dadon reached an agreement with the last hotel chain in Israel that had yet to join the program, Fattal. “We took into account the hotel’s needs and how much this set up costs them,” he said.
The DOPP’s second critical task was getting medical equipment to the Israeli health care system — and fast. This includes personal protection equipment, ventilators and all of the components needed for testing: swabs and reagents — a world of items that Dadon and his teams had barely interacted with in the past.
The problem was that Europe was shutting down as a source for testing kits due to its own domestic needs. For the first time in its history, the DOPP faced the reality of tenders canceled last minute with orders for millions of N95 masks sold to others. “We were amazed to find that it had been sold to another buyer when we arrived,” he said.
As a result, the DOPP was able to rapidly place replacement orders in South Korea, China and Mexico.
“The good news is that we didn’t lose a single shekel of taxpayer money in these bizarre incidents. But we were disappointed. My lesson was that we have to rely on ourselves and produce here,” said Dadon.
On March 8, the DOPP arranged 30,000 protective suits and tens of thousands of COVID-19 test kits to arrive from South Korea. On March 15, the Defense Ministry announced a major import from South Korea of approximately 100,000 COVID-19 test kits
By mid-March, Dadon had also decided to “set up a bridgehead in China.” Equipment had begun arriving in Israel by the planeload.
“The Accountant General recommended that we work with the Israel Chemicals company. This company was already there, meaning that we didn’t need an unknown broker,” said Dadon. “They came to help with very high motivation.”
That effort results in waves of aircraft bringing in supplies throughout recent weeks. Finally, a request came in from the Health Ministry to stop the imports, as stockpiles were overflowing. The equipment included masks, protective gear and ventilators, according to Defense Ministry statements in March.
‘Where the excess production will go’
Meanwhile, the DOPP reached an agreement with the Sion Medical company, which has a factory in Sderot, to begin mass production of PPE in Israel.
The move is part of a wider strategic shift to medical self-sufficiency, according to Dadon.
The DOPP worked with Israel’s largest defense companies — IAI, Elbit and Rafael — each play major roles in assisting ventilator manufacturing and upgrades, linking them up with smaller medical equipment producers.
“We began examining the Israeli market and finding out who produces ventilation systems and specialized masks, and we found 16 manufactures,” he said. The Sion Medical company, which has a factory in Sderot, is now mass producing specialized N95 and surgical masks.
The DOPP also isolated components that were missing from the supply chain and that were needed to make ventilation machines in Israel and found Israeli producers that could fill in the gap. “A certain component was made abroad — without it, there is no production of ventilators,” said Dadon. “I remembered knowing a factory in Kibbutz Merom Golan, called Bental, which makes these things. Within a week, the ventilation machine producers were linked with the factory. This component no longer needs to be imported. We achieved full independence.”
According to Dadon’s estimate, Israel will soon be making 500 ventilators per week. “It’s gotten to the stage where we have to start thinking about where the excess production will go,” he said. “The level of product is very high.”
On the testing front, the DOPP helped import a full lab from abroad, which should be up and running within two weeks. “The concept that holds that mass public testing can enable the economy go back to work is the right approach in my view,” he said. “Here too, we are making progress on locally producing the swabs and reagents that we previously needed to import.”
A DOPP transport unit, which usually moves defense equipment from the United States to Israel, was instrumental in importing medical equipment from China to Israel.
Once the shipments arrived at Ben-Gurion International Airport, the DOPP reached a same-day release agreement with the Israel Customs Administration, meaning that the items were first allowed to exit the airport and only afterwards was the paperwork filled out. Health teams were surprised by how rapidly the equipment was showing up at their hospitals.
Dadon described an ego-free joint effort among all of the relevant agencies and ministries, each bringing their relative advantage to the table. “We can’t replace the doctors and or know what is needed, but I do know how to do efficient, economical acquisitions, and to bring in equipment quickly or to produce. Ultimately, producing here in Israel will save us hundreds of millions of shekels,” he said.
Throughout this effort, the DOPP also helped a friendly country receive equipment that enables sedated ventilated patients to be flown without disconnecting them from machines.
‘We are dealing with life and death’
Looking ahead, Dadon said that the Sderot plant will be producing a million N95 masks per month by the end of May. The DOPP also set up two local surgical-mask production lines. And by July, he cautiously estimated, Israel’s ventilator stockpile will be in a significantly better situation.
“What concerns me is the need to prepare for next winter,” he said. “If another large wave strikes, we need to be prepared for that. In terms of Israel production capability, we will be ready.”
“The situation is not easy. We are dealing with life or death. But at the national level, I think we are in a reasonable situation,” he assessed.
Dadon described weeks of 24-7 work by his dedicated teams. “This organization has a young spirit, which is very meticulous but not bureaucratic. It knew very quickly how to build smart working teams. The person in charge of the labs is someone who ordinary purchases aircraft. He is doing wonderful work,” said Dadon. “The organization knows how to deal with the IDF’s needs, and at the same time, create teams for ad hoc missions to handle this unique challenge. Gradually, we are coming back to our core business of acquisition and maintenance for IDF force build-up.”
Dadon described young people, including mothers with children at home, refusing to go home because of their sense of national duty. “I saw them working at Tel Hashomer’s Control Center [where the national coronavirus taskforce is situated], working on Saturdays, working into the nights, and I told them to go home. I wanted them to get some rest. They refused with a smile and kept working with lots of motivation.”
The entire experience has strengthened the DOPP considerably, added Dadon. “It has made us stronger as a service at the national level. I am very proud to lead this organization.” JN