Merck physician helps assess needs in Ebola crisis

(Photo courtesy of Project HOPE) Dr. Mel Kohn of Merck (far right, blue shirt, beard) and Frederick Gerber, Project HOPE's director of special programs and operations (blue shirts, white hat), visited Sierra Leone in October 2014 to assess how the nonprofit could aid in the Ebola crisis.

Dr. Mel Kohn is at the intersection of the governmental, nonprofit, and corporate efforts directed at the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

Kohn, who lives in Philadelphia, works for Merck & Co. in West Point, Montgomery County. He joined Merck Vaccines after 14 years of work in public health for the State of Oregon. With the drugmaker's office of corporate philanthropy funding the trip, he and Merck colleague John Grabenstein visited Sierra Leone in October as part of a group put together by the Virginia-based nonprofit Project HOPE and invited by the Sierra Leone government.

"I went to help do a needs assessment for Project HOPE, not Merck," Kohn said this week. "Project HOPE had some questions about how it might support efforts to stop the epidemic. Some turned out to be good ideas, some not so good, but that was the purpose. Merck was gracious in lending my time for the effort."

Based in Millwood, Va., Project HOPE is a nonprofit that aims to help develop and institute long-term health-care solutions that emphasize people helping themselves.

On Monday, Merck announced that it paid at least $30 million to license a potential Ebola vaccine from NewLink Genetics Corp. Kohn said he was unaware of the talks that led to the deal until after his trip.

And the trip itself presented a bit of a challenge because commercial airlines were cutting back flights to the countries with the most Ebola cases - Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, and Nigeria. Kohn's group made stops in Washington, London, and Casablanca, Morocco, before landing in Sierra Leone's capital of Freetown.

"It turns out the medical needs are fairly basic," Kohn said. "The most important thing is to be hydrated, and much of that can be done by mouth. There are also a lot of issues with burials. You have a body bag and eight-foot-deep graves, and people were digging these by hand, so there was a chance for spreading infection if things were not handled correctly. One idea for Project HOPE was the possibility of donating a back hoe to dig graves."

Kohn collected degrees from Yale, Harvard Medical School, and the Tulane School of Public Heath. He worked for the State of Oregon as the lead epidemiologist and then as public heath director.

Grabenstein spent 27 years as a pharmacist in the Army before joining Merck, where he is executive director of global health and medical affairs for Merck Vaccine.

Another Army veteran, Frederick Gerber, director of special programs and operations for Project HOPE, led the group. Other members were Grace Deveney, a public health nurse from Massachusetts General Hospital, and John Hyland, the international legal counsel of InterHealth Canada Ltd.

Kohn said the crisis "is not going to be over next week," but he hopes the "fatalism" attached to it will fade as care is coordinated. That will include contributions from public health agencies and pharmaceutical companies, among many others.

"Vaccines can provide an enormous potential benefit for public health," Kohn said. "I had worked on the government side, and I didn't know a lot about the industry until I joined Merck. If industry doesn't develop and produce medicine, then public health agencies will have fewer tools to prevent disease. Viruses know no boundaries."