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Ebola contest brings ideas for cooling suits and virus repellents

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The well-prepared Ebola fighter in West Africa may soon have some new options: protective gear that zips off like a wet suit, ice-cold underwear to make life inside the sweltering suits more bearable, or lotions that go on like bug spray and kill or repel the lethal virus.

Those ideas are among the contenders to win the Ebola "Grand Challenges" contest announced in October by the U.S. Agency for International Development, or among those being considered by the agency without having formally entered the contest.

All still need to undergo testing, and some may prove impractical, but the 900 contest submissions "blew the roof off the number of responses we’ve ever had," said Wendy Taylor, director of USAID’s Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact.

The agency’s Grand Challenges, modeled on those begun a decade ago by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have produced some nifty inventions, the best known of which is a device for helping women in obstructed labor that was invented by an Argentine auto mechanic after he saw a YouTube video on using a plastic bag to get a cork out of a wine bottle.

The preliminary results of the Ebola challenge were revealed Friday, and Taylor said the agency would spend about $1.7 million testing the most promising possibilities.

Some, including various brands of cooling undergarments, are repurposed off-the-shelf products. The heavy-duty SteeleVest, for example, is used by the military, some industrial workers and, according to the company’s website, vacationers and fishermen. Technologically, it is simple: a fabric vest with pockets into which gel packs fresh out of the freezer are inserted.

A higher-tech alternative is Qore athletic gear, which includes compression sleeves and shorts that press cooling packs to the forearm and groin, where arteries run close to the surface.

Testing is needed, Taylor said, to see if the vest is comfortable enough and the sleeves cooling enough. Doctors and nurses working in midday tropical heat are often near collapse after 45-minute shifts. Anything that prolongs that period would let them see more patients — and that is important because there is a severe shortage of health care workers to fight Ebola.

Other contenders include Zylast, an antiseptic skin gel that its makers claim kills microbes for up to six hours, even after hand washing.

To see if it might be effective during the slow, dangerous process of taking off a protective suit, Zylast must be tested specifically against the Ebola virus and for its durability on skin running with sweat, Taylor said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health will do the tests or provide advice if an independent laboratory does them, she added.

A spray-on barrier to repel microbes with electrostatic fields will also be tested, in the hopes that it will let protective gear be fashioned out of breathable fabrics. However, whether it can repel infectious vomit and diarrhea remains to be seen.

A joint team of engineering and medical students from Johns Hopkins University and the Under Armour clothing company, both based in Baltimore, are refining a new type of protective suit. It is meant to be cooler than current versions and removable in 60 seconds because it uses a wet-suit-style back zipper and breakaway leg seams. It also has a big built-in face shield, which would allow wearers to see better and make them look less scary to patients.

"You can see their smile," Taylor said.

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