As the Ebola virus spread quickly across parts of Africa in March, U.S. officials confronted a logistical nightmare: a complete lack of infrastructure in affected regions, no evacuation plans and air charter services that were unable or unwilling to fly into the region to transport seriously ill patients.
And it turns out there’s only one jet in the world — operated by a small private plane charter company in Georgia — with a special transport tube that allows medical personnel to treat Ebola patients while in flight.
The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease and Prevention helped develop the “air transport bio-containment unit” under a multiyear project with the Phoenix Air Group in Georgia in 2006, but the agency later decided that it couldn’t afford to maintain “stand-by” capability, and so the equipment was warehoused, contract records show.
It’s unclear why CDC let the contract lapse. But as Ebola spreads, the situation recently set off an urgent push by the State Department to secure the company’s services, which were highly sought after by health organizations across the world.
While it was once at the beck and call of the CDC under a previous contract, the company recently had to be hired back by the State Department this year at a cost of nearly $5 million for a six-month sole-source contract.
“Had the department not moved very quickly to establish its own exclusive contract, our negotiating position would have shifted, placing [U.S. government] personnel and private citizens at risk,” State Department officials wrote in the contract justification last month.
Hank Greely, director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University, said nobody took steps to prepare for this kind of Ebola outbreak because all previous outbreaks had burned themselves out so fast.
“I do think it’s remarkable evidence that if we take this [contract] at face value, which I have no reason not to, there is one airplane, one bio-containment unit, in the world that is really good and safe for this kind of problem,” Mr. Greely said of the contract document.
“That is stunning. That probably should not be the case.”
Though hardly a household name, the Cartersville, Georgia-based Phoenix was well known to health officials across the globe. As the virus spread, officials from the World Health Organization, U.N. and Britain, among others, all approached Phoenix to sign exclusive deals, records show.
Katherine Harmon, director of health intelligence for risk management firm iJET, said that once Western nations saw how African countries were losing control in the fight against Ebola, “everybody was after this aircraft.”
Even before the contract, Phoenix transported two Americans — Dr. Kent Brantley and Nancy Writebol — from Africa to the U.S. after the State Department, which is responsible for the evacuation of Americans overseas, asked for its help on a “humanitarian” basis, records show.
But State Department officials said the transportation of Ebola patients carries too much corporate risk and international coordination to provide the service outside of the protection of a federal contract, according to the contract document.
Government officials said in the document that they had only two choices — use Phoenix or leave the person where they can’t get care — given recent CDC guidelines concerning the transport of “asymptomatic contacts” that require unprecedented control and coordination.
The State Department hiring document also said the Defense Department has its own “transport tube,” but once sealed inside, the patient is isolated from medical care.
The sole-source justification used to hire Phoenix also details some of the challenges in responding to the Ebola crisis. The lack of medical evacuation service alone has left the international community hard-pressed to recruit staff to respond in Africa, while commercial airlines are canceling routes entirely. Airline stocks were big losers on Wall Street Wednesday because of investor fears the virus may force more flight cancellations and travel restrictions.
Michael Fischetti, executive director of the National Contract Management Association, said the Phoenix contract shows the increasing reliance of U.S. agencies on contractors and how procurement officials can be key in helping the government respond to an escalating crisis.
Indeed, the sole source justification by the State Department to hire Phoenix said the U.S. response to the Ebola crisis “hinges on rapidly establishing a contract solution.”
“You’ve got an Ebola crisis, and things are happening fast, but we’ve got a contracting process that can react fast when it has to,” Mr. Fischetti said.