Saving the World From the Next Pandemic

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The AeroClave, which rids airplanes of disease-causing viruses, can be moved using a freight truck

Experts on infectious diseases have been telling us for some time that the next global pandemic is on its way. It’s a question of when, not if, and it will most likely take the form of an avian flu. It will make the SARS virus, which killed 800 people between about November 2002 and July 2003, look like nothing.

SARS spread from southern China to Toronto, Canada, at the speed of an intercontinental flight. In addition to its deadly toll, this merest of dry runs cost the airline industry more than $10 billion in lost revenue as companies grounded contaminated planes and people canceled travel.

With all this in mind, I spent much of my last day at the air show looking for a strange little exhibit I’d heard about that had a model truck and airplane hooked together with tubes. When I finally found the modest booth, I learned that the invention and the company that make it are called AeroClave, but that their creator, physician Ron Brown, was already on his way back to Orlando. I reached him by telephone the next day.

AeroClave could very well save the air industry billions and save the rest of us from a high-speed plague. Dr. Brown came up with the idea in 2003, as he and the rest of the world were learning about SARS. As the medical director of a large county emergency center near Orlando, he was asked to look into establishing a quarantine site at the local international airport. During a meeting with officials and doctors, he asked, “If I’m going to take care of the patients, who’s going to take care of the planes?”

No one at the meeting had an answer. When they explored the problem, it turned out that no one elsewhere in the world did either.

During the SARS outbreak, airlines were simply parking planes for up to two weeks, waiting for the virus to die. Another proposed solution was to send people in biohazard suits into contaminated planes to spray them with diluted bleach. But you can’t spray diluted bleach on $10 million worth of avionics.

Brown knew that sustained high temperatures can kill SARS, and that cranking up the heat and humidity of an environment can be lethal to most disease-causing viruses. So he figured that if he could superheat a plane without damaging any of its equipment, and without exposing anyone to danger, he would have a solution.

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Shopping for guns at the 2005 Paris Air Show

After raising money, building two prototypes, and buying a decommissioned DC-9 to run tests, three weeks ago AeroClave started building its first units for the marketplace. They will be finished Sept. 1. The Federal Aviation Authority will start evaluating the AeroClave July 6, and Brown expects its stamp of approval this year. A unit costs between $500,000 and $650,000, and he’s betting that every international airport will want at least a few. His first customer is likely to be an Australian holding company with aviation interests in China that has been negotiating a purchase of 100.

Brown had never traveled outside of the United States and had no idea of the global market for his invention. Pentagon officials laughed when he met with them, but not, as he first thought, because they thought his idea was crazy. “They told me you’ve probably underestimated your potential market by a factor of 10,” he said. Now he’s been to Australia and England, as well as France, and will soon visit Dubai.

An AeroClave is the size and shape of a shipping container, and it can be pulled alongside an airplane using a freight truck. Powered by a built-in diesel generator, it blasts computer-controlled levels of heat and humidity into the plane and back out again using big tubes that resemble dryer vents. It can decontaminate a passenger jet in two and a half hours.

There’s a lot of focus on the Paris Air Show as a global weapons bazaar, and there are some impressive instruments of destruction on display. I may have misrepresented it over the last week, as I’ve wandered through haphazardly singling out things like the AeroClave, UAVs that help rescue workers, and gadgets that scare birds off of runways, saving birds and humans alike. These things catch my eye because they hint that for all our spectacular ways to kill, and our tendency to get into messes, we often come up with ways to get out of those messes, too. The aerospace industry has even become fuel-conscious in recent years, with a focus on composite materials that make for lighter, more efficient jets. Maybe, just maybe, we’re smart enough to save ourselves from ourselves.