The West African Ebola crisis continues to gather pace. With the devastating illness proving fatal in around 55 percent of cases -- compared with up to 90 percent in previous infections -- it has already taken the lives of around 1,000 people in the current outbreak. The World Health Organization (WHO) just declared the current Ebola crisis in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea a public health emergency and recognizes this as the most serious outbreak of Ebola since the virus was first identified in 1976.
In the nearly four decades since the virus emerged, there is no known cure, and no vaccine has been discovered to inoculate individuals against it. Furthermore, because the illness afflicts the poorest segments of the population in developing countries, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported, there's no business model for developing pharmaceutical solutions for the virus. Those companies pioneering the few experimental drugs have found funding elusive in order to fully develop them, failing accordingly to bring any treatments to market in the notoriously expensive drug discovery process.
Consequently, the only approach in terms of care-giving, for now at least, is containment. Humanitarian aid organization Direct Relief, collaborating with 16 corporations, is directing its efforts towards getting essential supplies to locally-run entities to stem the spread of the disease. Last week, we spoke to Thomas Tighe, CEO of Direct Relief, to learn how the organization is making a difference on the ground in what appears to be one of the few hopeful stories regarding the Ebola crisis.
Tighe explained that Direct Relief, a 66-year-old nonprofit entity providing medical assistance, acts as an intermediary aid organization focusing primarily on supporting locally-run health initiatives on the ground. In the context of the current Ebola crisis, the organization is working with doctors in Liberia and Sierra Leone who are nationals of those countries, who happen to be Harvard trained physicians.
These in-country experts communicate what it is that they are in urgent need of -- and Direct Relief coordinates fulfillment efforts by reaching out, and working with, corporate entities that have the products that are in short supply. As Tighe explained, "Not all demand in the world expresses itself as commercial demand." However, in emphasizing the humanitarian need, the organization has secured robust support from many companies (see full list at the end) that are participating in the effort.
Unlike a typical nonprofit model where funds are raised for a cause, which are subsequently used to procure necessary resources, Direct Relief instead prefers to identify what products are needed to solve a specific problem, go straight to the vendors who make those products, and attempt to get them involved directly. This approach, they find, is more efficient.
One such company working with Direct Relief is Ansell Healthcare -- an Australia-based company that specializes in "protection solutions." Of particular importance in this context, makes surgical gloves that are uniquely anti-microbial -- a characteristic which adds a crucial level of extra protection for healthcare workers treating patients with the Ebola virus.
We spoke to Tony Lopez, the president of Ansell Healthcare's medical solutions unit based in New Jersey, who expressed great enthusiasm in helping Direct Relief in their efforts to get supplies to the effected region. Ansell's current involvement builds on experience gained during previous collaborations with Direct Relief, notably following typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines in 2013. Lopez asserts, "most responsible companies are thrilled to be able to help; they want to help, and it's easier to help with product and services than it is with money" emphasizing that, "the product goes straight to the target of the problem."
And with resources coming in from various entities targeting the problem, Direct Relief, in turn, is meticulous in tracking its efficacy. Recognizing that it is working with sophisticated global organizations in directing humanitarian aid, Tighe says the organization recently went through a full SAP implementation, "which allows the humanitarian supply chain to be as good as the commercial supply chain." Direct Relief is able to track what is asked for, what their response time is in providing it and what the overall fulfillment success rate is, among other parameters.
In terms of the scale of operation, Tighe told us Direct Relief's humanitarian efforts to other poor countries last year were valued at $500 million at wholesale across 7,500 distinct deliveries.
As for the most recent efforts to provide relief for the current Ebola outbreak, Direct Relief just delivered a large airlift of specifically-requested corporate contributions to front-line hospitals in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and are planning to charter another cargo aircraft to send an even bigger shipment of supplies in the coming weeks.
Along with Ansell Healthcare, the other participants providing urgently needed materials in this emergency response are: Abbot, Actavis Pharma Inc, Basic Medical, Baxter International Inc. BD, Cera Products Inc, Covidien, Henry Schein Inc, Kimberly-Clark, McNeil Consumer Healthcare, Merck & Co. Inc, Mylan Laboratories Inc, Nephron Pharmaceuticals, Prestige Brands and Teva Pharmaceuticals.
Image used with permission from Direct Relief
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Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.