Paul Allen Foundation supports new Ebola evacuation scheme

A new way to evacuate ill health workers from the front lines, funded by the Paul G Allen Family Foundation and US State Dept.

Among the insights, many of them disturbing, that the world learned from the massive Ebola outbreak in West Africa is that it’s difficult to evacuate people who are sick with a highly deadly and infectious disease.

Global companies that specialize in medical evacuations, as this 2014 Reuters news report noted, refused to evacuate health workers from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea who had ‘active’ cases of Ebola virus disease due to the ‘complex’ nature of the illness. That’s saying a lot since these firms can charge more than $100,000 for such an evacuation.

Even chimps are being denied passage because of the fear of transporting Ebola.

Given this kind of thing may – to say the least – discourage foreign health workers from assisting in the next Ebola outbreak, the Paul G. Allen Foundation and the U.S. Department of State have supported a new scheme aimed at filling in this critical gap in the global health emergency response system.

“We’re not done with Ebola,” said Gabrielle Fitzgerald, director of the Allen Foundation’s Ebola program. “We’re still learning new things from this outbreak and one of the key lessons is that we need to prepare long-term to do this better next time.”

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The Allen Foundation is the single, largest private donor to the multibillion dollar response to the outbreak in West Africa, having donated more than $100 million to various efforts aimed at improving the emergency response, detection and diagnostics as well as ongoing recovery needs.

The Seattle philanthropy’s deep dive into seeking how best to improve the emergency response ended up dovetailing nicely with Paul Allen’s long-standing interest in aeronautics (see SpaceShipOne) to launch a $5 million public-private partnership with the State Department and a Kansas City-based defense-energy contractor, MRIGlobal, to come up with a better airborne medical evacuation scheme.

The result is a big white box that looks on the outside like a love child left over after a romantic encounter between NASA and Northern Pacific Railway.

Called the CBCS, for Containerized Bio-Containment System (a bit redundant on containment, but maybe it’s just a working title…), it’s what you see on the inside that makes it a possible game-changer for the next Ebola outbreak.

A look inside the new mobile Ebola containment unit.

A look inside the new mobile Ebola containment unit.

It’s basically an airborne-mobile critical care unit that can provide for some of the most challenging patient management situations imaginable.

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The first CBCS unit was unveiled this week in Marietta, Ga., at Dobbins Air Reserve Base.

“We are basing them there because of Emory University’s high expertise in dealing with Ebola and other infectious diseases,” Fitzgerald said. Each unit can handle four patients at a time and were built to be compatible for transport by either military or commercial cargo airplanes, she said.

“These units will be crucial in specialized air transport and medical precautions required for Ebola and other virus infections,” said Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary for management at the State Department, in a statement issued at the unveiling.

“Today, some of the most dangerous adversaries we face are contagious diseases. These new medevac units are an extraordinary example of partnership and innovation in action,” said Barbara Bennett, president and COO at Vulcan Inc., Allen’s commercial enterprise.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.