In March of this year, the Ebola virus broke out in Guinea and quickly spread through four other West African countries: Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Senegal. The virus is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids, and in Africa can be contracted through consumption of bush-meats. Earlier this week, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the virus, which currently has a 50 to 60 percent fatality rate, has killed upwards of 2,000 people and infected close to 4,000; actual numbers are estimated to be much higher, as many cases have gone unreported. It has become the largest outbreak of Ebola in history, and has researchers, scientists, doctors and pharmaceutical companies racing to find not only a cure, but ways to help stop the spread of the deadly virus.
Historically, there has been no known cure for Ebola, but two American-based pharmaceutical companies have recently begun clinical trials with human volunteers to test two drugs. These innovative vaccines may hold the key to combating, and even curing, the Ebola virus.
One of the new vaccines, called ZMapp, has been developed by Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc., based in San Diego, California. The drug contains antibodies that are found in tobacco plants, with a three antibodies that latch onto infected cells and help the immune system destroy them.
In late August, ZMapp was used in a trial with 18 monkeys that were injected with Ebola in a lab. The drug was administered a few days after the disease took hold and symptoms began to show. After a few days, all of the symptoms subsequently stopped, and researchers deemed the drug a success — the monkeys had been cured of Ebola.
Human trials, however, have received some criticism. The monkeys were deliberately injected with Ebola in a controlled environment and constantly monitored for symptoms before given ZMapp, which would never be the case with humans. Symptoms in humans can also take up to 21 days to show, which may be too late for the vaccine to still be effective.
The remaining doses of ZMapp were given to two American aid workers and another British man that had contracted Ebola, as well as four others.
William Pooley from the United Kingdom contracted Ebola while working in Sierra Leone. He was transported back to England and put in isolation at the Royal Free Hospital in London, where he received treatments and the experimental ZMapp drug. His symptoms never escalated to severe levels, and he was successfully treated and subsequently discharged from the hospital after his treatments ended 10 days later.
Two Americans were also successfully treated with ZMapp. Nancy Writebol was in Liberia working as a missionary when she contracted Ebola. Her story was closely followed back in July as she was transported to America and put in an isolation ward in an Atlanta hospital. While there, another American missionary who had contracted Ebola, Kent Brantly, was also receiving treatments. The two were given ZMapp, which again proved successful. Both were released from hospital after recovering.
It has not been proven that the ZMapp doses had a positive effect on the patients while recovering, as their time spent in isolation with constant care may have also alleviated the virus. More clinical trials will need to be conducted on humans to ensure that it is actually an effective drug and contributes to combating the virus.
All of the ZMapp stock has since been used and more is in development. It takes roughly one month to produce anywhere from 20 to 40 doses, and researchers have said that more human trials will be carried out before the drug is available to the general public.
Earlier this month, a contract was signed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that agreed to fund the production of ZMapp through Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. The 18-month contract has roughly $24 million worth of funding for the new drug. Further funding and research will help drive the drug’s development in the fight against the Ebola virus.
A second vaccine is currently being developed by another American group called GlaxoSmithKline, which began human trials early last week. Data from these trials will be ready in November, and if deemed successful, the WHO will allow the drug to be administered across West Africa. The vaccines, when ready for public use, will first be administered to health care professionals who are working on the ground in the affected countries, as they are the most at-risk, and also play vital roles in helping to combat the disease.
Human clinical trials are set to begin, and will be carried out on volunteers in America, the United Kingdom, and Mali (which borders Guinea, where the Ebola virus has had a devastating effect on the population). When new pharmaceutical drugs are first developed, they must go through a series of tests before moving on to human trials, but given the mass outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, the WHO has allowed for these rules to be bent.