Ebola: The New Race for the Cure

The latest threat to international security and geopolitical stability comes not from the threat of terrorism or organized crime, but from a particle less than 1/100 the width of a human hair. The Ebola virus was first discovered in 1976, during an outbreak in the country of Zaire which killed nearly 300. Since then, researchers have been working on developing an Ebola therapeutic and vaccine; thus far, none have been shown to be definitively effective in humans.

As the Ebola virus ravages the West African nations of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia, its unprecedented spread—which currently stands at over 8,914 afflicted and over 4,447 dead—and recent appearances in Europe and the United States have prompted an international effort to isolate infected persons and curtail the disease’s transmission. According to the WHO, novel cases of the disease are expected to skyrocket to 10,000 per week by December. Known as Zaire ebolavirus, the widespread form of Ebola infecting thousands is part of the Filoviridae family, which includes marburgviruses and three other species of ebolavirus. As of yet, only Zaire has proven pathogenic in humans.

The disconcerting lack of a treatment or vaccine has forced the FDA to take rapid action, fast-tracking drug candidates for Phase 1 clinical trials and utilizing emergency Investigational New Drug applications to allow experimental drugs to be administered within the U.S. in recent weeks. According to the CDC, the Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency is funding the development of Ebola drugs by a San Diego company, Mapp Biopharmaceuticals. At the forefront of the fight against Ebola is the company’s drug ZMapp, a prime candidate for an Ebola treatment. In August 2014, a study showed that the compound, a combination of three monoclonal antibodies—pathogen-eliminating proteins in the immune system—cured all 18 of the Ebola-stricken NHP (non-human primate) subjects during trials. While not definitive, evidence of ZMapp’s potential effectivity in humans was demonstrated after the drug was administered to Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, volunteers in West Africa during the onset of the outbreak, seemingly curing them. However, Mapp Biopharmaceuticals is dangerously understaffed—only nine people are employed at the California company—and supplies of ZMapp are effectively depleted. With assistance from the DoD, Mapp hopes to procure enough of the drug to administer it on a large scale.

Even at full production capabilities, only between 20 and 40 treatments can be produced a month, says Dr. Gary P. Kobinger of the National Microbiology Laboratory in Manitoba. According to the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a branch of the Department of Health & Human Services, Phase 1 clinical trials of ZMapp are expected by the end of 2014.

The DoD is also providing funding to Biocryst and Tekmira Pharmaceuticals, both of which are developing therapeutic treatments for the virus. Biocryst’s antiviral Ebola drug is “expected to begin Phase 1 testing later this year”, according to the CDC.

Meanwhile, the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and GlaxoSmithKline have co-developed an investigational vaccine, which commenced Phase 1 trials during the first week of September in Bethesda, Maryland.

The Ebola virus represents an threat to international security and well-being, and constant vigilance on the part of governments, citizens, and philanthropic organizations is imperative to maintain social stability in affected regions. Adding additional layers of bureaucracy to an already precarious and convoluted situation would further complicate efforts to reach those who have been infected and keep safe those who have yet to come into contact with the disease. Only expeditious development of Ebola therapeutics and vaccines, coupled with judicious use of resources and dogmatic adherence to proper health precautions, will be effective in combating this outbreak.

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