Among the logistical nightmares confronting U.S. relief teams fighting Ebola in Africa is the limited capacity to medevac emergency crews home if they get sick.
There are very few negative-pressure medical-containment tents capable of carrying infected passengers on a passenger jet or military transport plane, and they are incredibly expensive to construct.
When Seattle billionaire Paul Allen learned about the problem, he sent his own aerospace expert to Europe to study units being designed by the Danish Air Force. Now a team supported by Allen is building new ones to be donated to the U.S. State Department.
On Thursday, Allen — who already had committed nearly $40 million in the fight against Ebola — upped his pledge, promising to donate up to $100 million while urging other philanthropists to follow suit.
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“Ebola is not somebody else’s problem. It is ours,” Allen explained in a statement on his website. “The entire global community needs to step up now with resources that match the speed and scale of this growing outbreak.”
Thursday’s announcement is just the latest indication that Allen wants to help lead the way in battling the deadly virus that is spreading rapidly and ravaging West Africa, infecting nearly 10,000 people and killing almost half of them.
While the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has contributed $50 million and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife have donated $25 million, no one else appears to have reached the scale of Allen’s giving to combat Ebola. In fact, outside his $300 million commitment to brain science, Allen has never put anywhere near this much money toward a single initiative.
Dune Ives, co-manager of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, said Allen was inspired to donate in part because he and his sister have spent so much time in Africa and want to give back. But Ebola also is a crisis that Allen began paying attention to earlier than most, helping pay for early vaccine trials in chimps and great apes years ago.
Behind the scenes, Allen also has been working with other major donors, trying to find ways to leverage more money.
“Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve reached out to a number of individuals,” said Ives. “There’s a lot of interest. But people just didn’t know where to give.”
So Allen’s team also has tried to help determine just how and where other contributions can do the most good. They’ve designed a website, www.TackleEbola.com, to help individuals find places to spend their money, but also focused early on some of the costly and hard-to-fix logistical problems.
Joe DiCarlo, vice president of programs with Oregon-based Medical Teams International, has had aid workers on the ground in Liberia since the end of that country’s civil war in 2003. So his group was one of the first that Allen reached out to earlier this summer.
“The first question we got from the Paul Allen Foundation was ‘How can we make it easier for you to send more volunteers to Liberia?’ ” DiCarlo said. “We told them one of the issues was, ‘What happens when someone gets sick?’ ”
While aid workers have converged on Africa, recruiting volunteers hasn’t always been easy in part because there hasn’t always been a systematic way to evacuate and treat them if they get infected. Allen’s group immediately helped establish protocols, offered financial support for evacuations, and covered gaps in insurance.
“They’ve already been instrumental in giving us the opportunity to work without the fear of what happens if our people get sick,” DiCarlo said. “That is a tremendous, tremendous gift.”
Allen’s funds also support a partnership with the University of Massachusetts Medical School to help train and supply workers with lab equipment in Liberia; help buy equipment and support American Red Cross volunteers in Guinea and Sierra Leone; help establish 250 African clinics; airlift 60,000 protection kits through UNICEF; and help the Centers for Disease Control set up emergency centers.