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German air rescue crews use bio-warfare kit to fight coronavirus

GIESSEN, Germany (Reuters) - Helicopter air ambulance crews in Germany are using equipment originally designed for biological warfare to transport patients critically ill with COVID-19.

Doctor Katharina Franz and paramedic Andreas Hankel, of the rescue helicopter "Christoph Giessen", take care of a patient during preparations for his transport in the special isolation chamber "IsoArk", for highly infectious coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patients, from a clinic in Hanau, Germany, April 16, 2020, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

One patient, a woman in her mid-50s, was too severely ill for the hospital in Kirchen, a small Rhineland town in central Germany.

She needed to be taken to Giessen, a trip that takes an hour by road but 20 minutes by helicopter: more than enough to make the difference between life and death.

But moving her was not easy. She first had to be placed in an IsoArk, a plastic bubble first developed for the Israeli army to transport biological warfare victims.

A sarcophagus for the living, it keeps the air inside at a lower pressure than outside, stopping the virus escaping to infect attending staff. The box was in turn brought out of the hospital to a waiting helicopter through an airlock.

Accompanying the patient were emergency doctor Katharina Franz and pilot Swen Silber. Also on board the helicopter of the Johanniter Air Ambulance service was paramedic Andreas Hankel, a specialist air ambulanceman who in a pinch could himself take the controls of the Eurocopter Dolphin as co-pilot.

On arrival at the hospital in Giessen, they erected a portable tent outside the chopper to disinfect the IsoArk for its next passenger. Twenty minutes of flight for an unconscious patient took fours of work.

Germany has the fifth highest COVID-19 caseload behind the United States, Spain, Italy and France at nearly 134,000 but has kept fatalities down to a relatively low 3,868 thanks to early and extensive testing.

The health ministry said coronavirus outbreak in Germany had become manageable again as the number of patients who have recovered had been higher than the number of new infections every day this week.

While some hospitals in parts of Italy, France and Britain are overloaded with patients suffering from the novel coronavirus, barely any intensive care units in Germany are even half full, and death rates are also lower.

Doctors say Germany’s advantage is partly having had more time to prepare after seeing the devastation it caused in northern Italy - time that let them create extra emergency beds.

That preparation also extends to getting patients safely to where they can be best treated, as Hankel and his team demonstrated.

Writing by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Giles Elgood