NEW YORK — Two American aid workers seriously ill with Ebola will be brought from West Africa to Atlanta for treatment in one of the most tightly sealed isolation units in the country, officials said Friday.
One is expected to arrive this weekend in a private jet outfitted with a special, portable tent designed for transporting patients with highly infectious diseases. The second is to arrive a few days later, said doctors at Atlanta's Emory University Hospital, where they will be treated.
It will be the first time anyone infected with the disease is brought into the country. U.S. officials are confident the patients can be treated without putting the public in any danger.
Ebola is spread through direct contact with blood or other bodily fluids from an infected person, not through the air.
The private aircraft based in Atlanta was dispatched to Liberia where the two Americans — Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol — worked for U.S. missionary groups. The State Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are assisting the groups.
The government is working to ensure that any Ebola-related evacuations "are carried out safely, thereby protecting the patient and the American public," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement released Friday.
A Department of Defense spokesman said Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, Georgia, will be used for the transfer.
The aircraft is a Gulfstream jet fitted with what essentially is a specialized, collapsible clear tent designed to house a single patient and stop any infectious germs from escaping. It was built to transfer CDC employees exposed to contagious diseases for treatment. The CDC said the private jet can only accommodate one patient at a time.
Brantly and Writebol are in serious condition and were still in Liberia on Friday, according to the North Carolina-based charity Samaritan's Purse, which is paying for their transfer and care.
An Emory emergency medical team arrived in Liberia on the chartered jet and evaluated the patients, and deemed both stable enough for the trip to Atlanta, said Emory's Dr. Bruce Ribner.
Brantly, 33, who works for Samaritan's Purse, had been helping treat Ebola patients at a Liberia hospital. Writebol also worked there for another U.S. mission group called SIM, or Serving in Mission, decontaminating those entering and leaving the Ebola care area.
There is no specific treatment for disease, although Writebol has received an experimental treatment, according to the mission groups.
"I have no concerns about even my personal health or the health of the other health care workers who will be working in that area," Ribner said.
Ebola in the United States; can it be safe?
The news of the planned return to U.S. soil of the two Ebola patients prompted a jittery response on social media Friday, highlighting the special terror for Americans familiar with movies such as Outbreak and the best-selling Richard Preston book The Hot Zone. U.S. government officials are urging the public to remain confident in the health-care system's ability to keep the disease isolated.
ARRIVAL: The first patient is expected to arrive today, with the second to follow shortly after. A Pentagon spokesman, Rear Adm. John Kirby, said the jet would use an airstrip at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, in the northwest Atlanta suburbs. "The patients will be escorted throughout by specially and frequently trained teams that have sufficient resources to transport the patients so that there is no break in their medical care or exposure to others," Kirby said.
DESTINATION: They will be treated at Emory University Hospital in a specially outfitted containment unit that was built with the help of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The isolation ward is designed to handle patients with highly infectious diseases.
PRECAUTIONS: All medical staffers who treat them will don masks, hoods, gloves and an outer shell over their clothing to protect them from bodily fluids that can spread the virus.
TREATMENT: Dr. Bruce Ribner, who oversees the isolation ward, said he was "cautiously optimistic" that the Americans could be treated successfully. Patients need "supportive care," which can include intravenous fluids, blood products and being put on a respirator and a dialysis machine illness. Such treatments are not necessarily available in Liberia.
What about a vaccine?
Why isn't there a treatment or vaccine by now? For one thing, the Ebola virus is hard to work with. The virus doesn't grow well in petri dishes and experiments can only be done in the relatively few labs with the highest security measures. And while Ebola is lethal, it's rare. Outbreaks are unpredictable, giving doctors few chances to test new treatments.
What's in the pipeline?
The government plans to fast-track development of a vaccine shown to protect macaque monkeys, aiming to test it in humans as early as next month.
If the vaccine proves effective, it may be given to health care workers and others at high risk for infection in 2015, said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
But the development effort depends on several contingencies: fast regulatory approval of the trial, the first of its type in healthy humans; results proving the vaccine is safe and provokes an immune response; and, perhaps most critically, attracting the interest and investment dollars of the pharmaceutical industry.
A Canadian company, Tekmira, has a $140 million contract with the U.S. government to develop an Ebola vaccine. An early test of the shot in healthy humans was stopped recently after the Food and Drug Administration asked for more safety information.
Associated Press, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, New York Times