University of Nebraska Medical Center continues to lead Ebola research and containment


Jessica Wade

The 2014 West African Ebola outbreak was the worst Ebola epidemic in history, killing an estimated 11,000 people,according to the World Health Organization.

Some 5,000 miles from where the virus originated in Guinea, the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) has become an international leader in Ebola research and containment.

Dr. Chris Kratochvil, UNMC’s associate vice chancellor for clinical research, said the decade-long development of Nebraska’s Biocontainment Unit helped to prepare UNMC for an infectious outbreak like Ebola.

“After Sept. 11, there was a concern for bioterrorism and health care providers being able to handle highly infectious diseases,” Kratochvil said. “Dr. Phil Smith drove our biocontainment unit development and developed a team that built the biocontainment unit, and throughout a decade they would continue to work on research and policies. When the Ebola outbreak happened,the state department did a site visit and decided that they would move forward with transporting patients here from West Africa.”

UNMC continues to move forward with research and preparedness after being awarded a $12 million grant in 2015 to establish the National Ebola Training and Education Center (NETEC).

The NETEC has helped to build infrastructure for training across the country, Kratochvil said.

“I think that the vision of Dr. Phil Smith starting this and sticking with it over the decade, developing a collaborative team and bringing together the organizations is really what helped us as an academic health center to step up and help the rest of the country,” Kratochvil said.

Angela Vasa, the director of Quarantine Services for the National Center for Health Security and BioPreparedness, also cited the importance of preparedness while discussing a recent exercise carried out by multiple organizations, including Omaha Fire and MidWest Medical.

The drill involved volunteers who acted as a Lincoln family recently returned from a mission trip.

“What we did was a 48-hour exercise where we activated our assessment hospitals and transported a patient from Lincoln to Omaha in an ambulance with the help of Omaha Fire and Midwest Medical,” Vasa said. “The institutions drew lab work and then involved the Nebraska Public Health Lab who went and picked up the specimens and then confirmed that they were simulated to be positive for Ebola.”

Vasa said that once people become symptomatic they’re classified as persons under investigation and the assessment hospitals in Omaha, Children’s Medical Center and Bergan Mercy are activated.

“Once they were determined to be positive,we activated the Biocontainment Unit and then the next morning we moved patients into the Biocontainment Unit again using Omaha Fire,” Vasa said. “One of things we wanted to test out was our ability to do a rapid review of a protocol for an experimental drug. We had the participating pharmaceutical companies ship us mock vials of drugs and then we could fully activate that whole system and further understand the challenges and strengths in deploying those resources.”

This drill was important because there have been few simulations in which the patients originated in Nebraska, Vasa said.

“We’ve done a lot of work on patients arriving to us internationally from the airport, but we had not yet done a full-scale exercise of individuals who originated from within Nebraska,” Vasa said. “Also, once patients arrive in the United States we need to ensure that the capabilities will stand up across the regional network for Ebola and other special pathogens treatment,and care is maintained because it doesn’t benefit anyone if we can bring patients back but then don’t have the capability to provide them with the care they need.”

Vasa said that for the future of UNMC and the Biocontainment Unit,she would like to see a continued and renewed commitment to leading the world and not just a domestic nation in preparing for all highly-hazardous, communicable diseases.