The Air Force is making headway on a new method to transport COVID-19 patients aboard military cargo aircraft, thanks to a transport module called the Negatively Pressurized Conex, or NPC.

According to the Air Force, the NPC proof of concept prototype showed it can prevent the virus from spreading to aircrew members or contaminating the aircraft, is accessible for aeromedical teams, and is safe to fly in military cargo aircraft like the C-17.

“The goal of the NPC is to help us keep infectious organisms contained, in order to prevent the aircrew, and medical professionals onboard the aircraft from being exposed,” Capt. Alexis Todaro, NPC program manager, said in an Air Force news release. "The container is negatively pressurized; fans are continuously pulling the air from within the unit through high-efficiency particulate filters to prevent any exposure to the aircraft.”

Air Force Materiel Command and Air Mobility Command leaders first convened last month to carry a high volume of patients with COVID-19 safely in response to a Joint Urgent Operational Need, and solicited assistance from those in academia, contract partners, and DoD units to make the plan come together.

Less than 10 days after the NPC prototype was first delivered to Joint Base Charleston for testing, the NPC exhibited it was capable of upholding safety standards during an in-flight demonstration on April 30.

The Air Force has already moved COVID-19 patients using a modified technique first developed during the Ebola epidemic in 2014 called the Transport Isolation System. The process involved a tent-like, infectious disease containment enclosure and the Air Mobility Command used it to evacuate three U.S. government contractors who had tested positive for COVID-19 out of Afghanistan last month.

But NPC allows the service to transport a greater number of COVID-19 patients, according to Air Mobility Command spokesperson 2nd Lt. Emma Quick.

“When the Coronavirus pandemic kicked off, the TIS was the only capability we had ‘in stock’ to transport COVID-positive patients, and that capacity was limited to moving a handful of patients at a time,” Quick told Air Force Times.

“With the understanding we’ll likely be dealing with COVID for some time with frequent requests to move larger number of patients than what the TIS can handle, AMC and AFMC collaborated with nearly a dozen other organizations from academia to private industry to DoD to develop the NPC, and in less than 30 days, it went from an idea on a napkin to a proven concept,” Quirk said.

Following the successful in-flight demonstration last month, the Air Mobility Command has now authorized moving ahead with full production and rapid procurement of the NPC and has the potential to purchase as many as 30 full-size NPCs for C-17 and C-5 aircraft, along with as many as 30 NPC-lite units for C-130 Hercules aircraft, Quirk said.

Additionally, the Air Mobility Command is now moving forward to make adjustments to guarantee the models hit certification requirements.

The NPC is designed for inter-theater travel and can carry a maximum of 28 passengers, 24 ambulatory patients and up to 8 litters, while the NPC-lite will offer slightly less capacity for intra-theater movement, according to Quirk.

An individual NPC module is expected to cost less than $800,000.

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