Getting Ahead of the Next Epidemic: Paul Allen’s Rapid Response to Zika

It’s official. The World Health Organization has declared Zika a global public health emergency, and in some areas of the world, the outbreak has been reported as a “pandemic in progress.”

The Zika virus started in Brazil in May of 2015. Since then, it spread quickly through the majority of Latin American countries. The virus has even made its way to U.S. territories, and the WHO is warning that the virus is expected to “spread across nearly all of the Americas.”

As if all of that wasn’t scary enough, Zika—which presents with pretty non-specific symptoms including mild fever, headache, and joint pain—has no vaccine and no drug treatment. Not yet anyway.

At least one top philanthropist is taking Zika seriously: Paul Allen. The tech billionaire was the single largest private donor toward Ebola, so it's not surprising that Zika would get his attention, and it's definitely encouraging. 

In 2014, when Allen announced he was making a commitment of at least $100 million to combat Ebola on virtually all fronts, he also made it known that he was keeping a close eye on preventing future outbreaks. Not of Ebola necessarily, but of any other highly contagious diseases or viruses that might threaten global health—especially in regions already plagued by poverty and lacking the resources to combat a rapidly spreading outbreak.

Related: Paul Allen’s Ebola Funding Evolves, With an Eye on the Next Epidemic

Paul Allen is having none of that. He and his Vulcan, Inc. have announced two grants totaling over $2 million to battle Zika in Latin America. Of that, Allen awarded $1.5 million to the American Red Cross toward the support of “integrated vector-control activities in Zika-affected areas,” including health, sanitation, and hygiene projects to help stem the rising tide of new cases.

Allen awarded the remaining $550,000 to Chembio Diagnostic Systems toward the support of the company’s rapid diagnostic tests. These tests are an integral piece to the outbreak prevention puzzle. Right now, only a lab can diagnose Zika. In the time it takes for those results come in, many new cases can crop up.

Chembio will use this latest grant to continue the development of point-of-care tests that “would fill an important gap in global public health.” Allen had previously given Chembio a $2.1 million grant during the Ebola outbreak to develop this same technology which has the ability to detect multiple diseases at once.

Back when Allen announced his big give to battle Ebola, he made a pretty big splash in the global health philanthropy pool. His commitment of $100 million made a cannonball-sized impact for a private philanthropist who previously hadn't been involved in global health issues. But this time around, it didn’t come as so much of a surprise. 

Related: Inside Paul Allen’s $100 Million Ebola Give, and Where His Philanthropy is Headed

What does continue to surprise us is how dynamic Allen has become as a global health funder. When it comes to viral outbreaks, Paul Allen isn’t just funding tech-laden diagnostics, which are certainly in his wheelhouse. He’s also funding stuff like predictive analytics to identify developing outbreaks, projects to improve supply chain logistics, and rapidly deployable treatment centers.

And unlike the Ebola outbreak response, Allen isn’t coming from behind—he’s double-timing his steps to stay ahead of the Zika outbreak curve. 

All of this suggests that he'll be sticking in the global health philanthropy space for the long haul.