Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen acted with surprising speed when he decided to give $100 million to fight Ebola as it flared in West Africa last summer.
When Paul Allen picks a cause, he usually takes his time.
The Microsoft co-founder likes to convene brainstorming sessions, consult experts and recruit advisers before making major philanthropic gifts.
But when Ebola flared in West Africa last summer, Allen was among the first private donors to step up. As the toll from the disease soared, he quickly raised his commitment to $100 million — the largest from any individual and double the amount contributed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Now that the epidemic seems to be slowing, Allen is still moving fast.
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With about $39 million yet to spend, his team is shifting its focus to programs that ensure fragile gains against the virus aren’t lost and that help the region’s battered health systems recover and prepare for future outbreaks.
“The emergency is still there … but it’s pivoting into the recovery phase,” said Gabrielle Fitzgerald, director of Allen’s Ebola initiative.
While infection rates have dropped sharply, 124 new cases were diagnosed in the final week of January and the disease spread to another province. As of Feb. 1, the World Health Organization reported 8,981 deaths out of a total of 22,495 infections since the outbreak began.
Fitzgerald returned recently from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, where temporary emergency-operations centers funded by Allen are being staffed around the clock. In Guinea, where schools just reopened, hotline operators responded to more than 5,000 calls from anxious parents and others on the day Fitzgerald visited.
Permanent emergency-operations centers, also funded by Allen, are under construction in all three countries and are expected to open next month. Equipped with communications systems and technology that’s rare in the region, the centers will allow African governments to better coordinate response to future epidemics and natural disasters. Allen is paying for the centers’ first year of staffing and operations.
From the start, one of Allen’s goals was to fund programs that would yield benefits after the crisis was past, said Alexa Rudin, a communications manager at Allen’s Seattle-based umbrella company, Vulcan.
At a time when medical workers were reluctant to travel to West Africa because there was no guarantee of evacuation if they got sick, Allen put up nearly $10 million to build two portable medevac units and underwrite a fund to pick up the tab for evacuation costs not covered by insurance.
The existence of the fund provided peace of mind for volunteers, said Stephanie Bluma, deputy administrator for public affairs at the U.S. Agency for International Development. And the fund and the medevac units, which are expected to be ready in April, will be useful for future epidemics of all types.
“The Allen Foundation really worked to identify needs and gaps early on,” Bluma said. “They’ve been fast and they’ve been flexible in adapting to what has been a changing situation.”
Ties to Africa
Global health and emergency response were new territory for Allen and his team. The eclectic billionaire, who owns the Seattle Seahawks and ranks 44th on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people, is better known for bankrolling local arts organizations, wildlife conservation and research on the brain and cell biology.
But Allen has strong ties to Africa. He travels there frequently and owns several tourist lodges. He’s also funded projects to monitor Ebola in wild apes and develop a vaccine to protect gorillas from the disease.
Allen started tracking the current outbreak long before many governments took it seriously, said Dune Ives, co-manager of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. “He asked us: Why isn’t anybody paying attention to this, and what can we do to make a difference?”
In the early days of the epidemic, it was hard to find groups to give money to, Ives said. Doctors Without Borders turned down an initial offer, because the organization wasn’t ready to expand its operations. With no global-health veterans on staff, Allen tapped a range of expertise across his organization to figure out what was needed and how best to help.
“It was all hands on deck,” said Chuck Beames, who leads Stratolaunch Systems, a Vulcan project to build the world’s biggest aircraft and use it as a platform from which to launch payloads into orbit.
A retired Air Force colonel, Beames drew on his experience in biological warfare preparedness to take the lead on medevac projects. He settled on a U.S. contractor to build self-contained pods that fit into a transport plane, accommodate a patient and medical crew, and eliminate the need to decontaminate the entire aircraft after use.
Vulcan’s film-production group helped launch public-education campaigns in West Africa promoting safe burial practices, raising awareness of Ebola and helping reduce the stigma attached to survivors. And the company set up a website and campaign called Tackle Ebola to raise additional money — and awareness — in the U.S. and other rich countries.
For a data-driven organization like Vulcan, the lack of reliable information about the epidemic was frustrating — and was clearly hampering the response, said Andy Hickl, senior director for innovation and Allen’s personal tech guru.
“There was a lot of debate over how many people were actually sick and dying, and whether supplies were getting to the field,” he said.
Hickl traveled to Ghana in early October, where the U.N. Mission for Ebola Emergency Response is based, to see for himself where the bottlenecks were and what assistance was needed. He discovered a handful of people were responsible for collecting data from across the region and had to contend with poor communications and spotty Internet connections. In some cases, information about new cases was entered on slips of paper and transported to cities via motorbike.
Funding from Allen enabled tech firms and nonprofits like Nethope to roll out satellite dishes to bolster connectivity. Some of the money went to buy 10,000 cellphones, programmed in Seattle and distributed to front-line health workers across the region to allow them to call in regular reports.
Now, Allen’s team has joined with several other organizations in an initiative to further expand Internet access for health facilities. They’re also looking for ways to ensure improvements remain in place after the epidemic is over.
“My goal is to make sure the most up-to-date technologies are being used to support the Ebola response, and that innovation created for Ebola has a lasting impact for public health and pandemic preparedness,” Fitzgerald said.
Though impressive for a single donor, Allen’s contribution pales compared to the nearly $3 billion pledged for Ebola relief by nations around the world. The U.S. alone anted up about $1 billion, and President Obama’s new budget proposal includes more than $6 billion to combat Ebola in Africa and strengthen preparedness at home.
But philanthropists were influential in the Ebola response because they have the ability to target specific gaps and hand out cash much more quickly than governments, said Chloe Knight Tonney, senior vice president of the CDC Foundation. The foundation, which raises money to support the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is administering Allen’s $13 million grant for emergency operations centers.
“These types of donations provide nimbleness and immediate response,” Tonney said.
That nimbleness is evident in Allen’s $7.5 million grant to a coalition led by the University of Massachusetts. The group had been working for years to train doctors and improve medical schools in Liberia. As the epidemic exploded, they got desperate calls for help from their Liberian colleagues, said Dr. Patricia McQuilkin.
Allen’s funding allowed them to buy and deliver $2 million worth of protective gear and other medical supplies. They had also planned to recruit and train health-care workers for specialized Ebola treatment centers. But with the number of new cases in Liberia reduced to a trickle, many of those centers are closing. So they got approval from Allen’s team to shift gears.
All of Liberia’s 24 normal hospitals were shuttered during the epidemic and are just starting to reopen, McQuilkin explained by phone from Liberia. She and her Liberian colleagues are using Allen’s money to equip all of them with protective gear and train the staff in its use.
That way, the hospitals will be able to safely handle any Ebola patients who come through their doors instead of sending them to an Ebola treatment unit.
The U Mass coalition is also providing staff to reopen the country’s medical schools and setting up sentinel labs at two major hospitals with high-tech tools to diagnose Ebola and other diseases more quickly.
“It’s helping restore basic health care as well as medical-training programs,” McQuilkin said.
Going forward, Fitzgerald said she’s identified priorities for the rest of Allen’s money. They include beefing up infection control at hospitals across the region, improving lab facilities and continuing work on a quick diagnostic test for the virus.
In a sign of Allen’s growing emphasis on philanthropy, Fitzgerald rubbed shoulders with global health’s leading luminaries in Davos, Switzerland, last month. She was the first representative from Allen’s charitable enterprises — other than the billionaire himself — to attend the annual World Economic Forum, where collaborations are often forged.
It’s clear from Vulcan’s website, which lists six job openings in the Ebola initiative, that Allen remains engaged. In January he brought Dr. Peter Piot, who discovered the Ebola virus, on board as a science adviser.
Is it possible that Allen is getting ready to devote even more money to ending the current Ebola outbreak and helping West African nations prepare for future health challenges?
“The $100 million is a stake in the ground,” Rudin said. “He very definitely used the language at least $100 million, versus up to $100 million.”