Paul Allen, billionaire owner of sports teams and mega yachts, on Thursday pledged at least $100 million to fight Ebola in what is believed to be the largest private foundation gift to combat the deadly disease and support healthcare workers in West Africa.
The co-founder of Microsoft — who regularly inhabits lists of the richest and most generous Americans — has already donated an estimated $26.5 million toward his pledge, including $12.9 million to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, $3.6 million to UNICEF, $2.8 million to the International Red Cross and $1.3 million to Doctors Without Borders.
"The Ebola virus is unlike any health crisis we have ever experienced and needs a response unlike anything we have ever seen," Allen said in a statement. "I am committed to tackling Ebola until it is stopped."
The disease, which has spurred worldwide panic, travel restrictions and a scramble by hospitals and health agencies to contain it and prepare for its possible spread, is generally transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids of an infected person.
The deadliest Ebola outbreak in history is believed to have infected nearly 10,000 people and claimed more than 4,800 lives, with the highest death toll in Liberia, according to the World Health Organization. It pegs the cost of fighting the disease at $975 million.
WHO spokesman Daniel Epstein said his organization "welcomes all financial and technical support in our efforts to save the lives of those infected with Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, and to halt the spread of the epidemic as soon as possible. We need funds, and we need foreign medical teams most of all, to staff the 50 Ebola treatment centers now operating or under construction."
With so many people possibly affected by this particularly deadly disease, funds have been hard to come by, especially from smaller donors who often step up to help in times of crisis.
"The small American donors are simply not there," said Jack Shakely, president emeritus of the California Community Foundation. "It takes a wealthy donor to step up to the plate."
Shakely is also a board member of Operation USA, a global relief organization that has sent medical supplies to Liberia, and he describes Ebola as "one of those horrible, horrible problems that can be fixed. [Allen] tends to be one of a group of social entrepreneurs who like to see results. This $100 million could, in fact, effect amazing results."
The $100-million pledge by the owner of the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks and the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers is the latest in a stream of donations by wealthy individuals and foundations, many with ties to technology.
Last week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $25 million to the CDC Foundation, noting on his Facebook page that the deadly disease "could infect 1 million people or more over the next several months if not addressed."
In September, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave $50 million to support the emergency response to the disease, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation committed $5 million. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation gave $1 million in August.
Allen plans to partner with the University of Massachusetts Medical School to provide medical workers and laboratory equipment in Liberia, with a particular focus on making sure that local hospitals are outfitted with decontamination equipment.
He also will fund the development and manufacture of two medevac containment units to evacuate medical workers from West Africa, what Dune Ives, senior director of Allen's Vulcan Philanthropy, calls "safety cocoons."
"As we started looking early on at what it is going to take, we recognized we need more trained healthcare workers to go to West Africa," Ives said. "Personally, unless I knew I had safety and support to get back home if I got infected, I would think twice."
The medevac units fit into airplanes and carry the kind of equipment and staff seen in hospital rooms, Ives said, adding that "right now, there is one plane that can safely medevac infected healthcare workers back to their country of origin. We wanted to provide the assurance of safe transport."
One goal of Allen's is to urge others to donate — individuals of modest means, corporations, foundations, the super-rich. To that end he has set up an online donation platform at TackleEbola.com to allow individuals to give money to specific areas of need.
"Time is not our ally in this fight," Allen said in a blog posted Thursday. "The time is now to do the right thing. So let's do this."