News / Health

WHO Endorses Use of Experimental Ebola Drugs

Ebola outbreaks, deaths in West Africa, as of August 11, 2014.
Ebola outbreaks, deaths in West Africa, as of August 11, 2014.
Carol Pearson

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental drugs for people who have Ebola, a deadly virus that already has claimed more than 1,000 lives in West Africa.

Several promising treatments and vaccines are being developed.

The experimental Ebola serum that was used on American and Spanish missionaries, and that may be used on Liberian doctors, is produced in California at Mapp Biopharmaceutical. The company says it has run out of the serum but is trying to increase production as quickly as possible.

Other groups also are working on treatments and vaccines. Researchers at Newlink Genetics in Iowa say they have a vaccine that was 100 percent effective when tested on monkeys. The company got a federal grant to ramp up its work and to speed up human testing.

"Every minute of every day and some nights and weekends we've been working on this," said Dr. Jay Ramsey, Newlink Genetics's clinical and regulatory compliance officer.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health has approved a grant to develop effective treatments for Ebola at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where Dr. Thomas Geisbert is a lead researcher who has spent more than 25 years researching the Ebola virus.

"[The] grant really is to focus on what we believe are three of the most promising post-exposure treatments against Ebola," he said.

One of the treatments is a vaccine that, much like a rabies vaccine, would be administered to people after possible exposure to the virus. The other two drugs would treat the disease.

All have proven effective in testing on monkeys and the next step is human trials.

“One of the goals for this project is to actually try to combine these different treatments," Geisbert said. "For example, with HIV there’s been a lot of success in combining different anti-viral drugs that operate by different mechanisms of action, and we believe that this is something that may work for Ebola as well."

Since 1976 there have been more than 15 Ebola outbreaks in sub-Saharan Africa, but no licensed treatments are available.

"The problem is that it’s a neglected tropical disease where there’s no real commercial market for it," said Dr. Peter Hotez, who specializes in neglected tropical diseases at the Baylor University College of Medicine in Texas.

"The major multi-national firms have not invested in these products," he said.

As a result, small research firms that do focus on neglected diseases depend on grants from governments and private sources, which makes for slow progress. Too slow for more than 1,000 people who have died so far in this current outbreak.

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