The Ebola virus, which ravaged West Africa and terrorized the world this past year, is largely under control, but if history is any guide, an outbreak is almost certain to happen again. Next time, though, health care workers will likely be better prepared to combat the deadly disease and protect themselves. In fact, researchers have discovered that some common drugs may shield from infection those who are exposed to the virus.
Ebola is highly contagious, with a fatality rate of up to 90 percent. Doctors and nurses who tended to the sick and many patients' family members contracted the virus from contact with infected body fluids.
As the virus spread unchecked, researchers raced to develop vaccines and treatments, most of which are still in the experimental phase.
But now, some well-known compounds - drugs long since approved for use against other disorders - may get new life for their ability to repel Ebola.
A widely prescribed antidepressant, sertraline, commonly known as Zoloft, and Vascor, a drug used to treat high blood pressure, were found to block the spread of the virus in a study of mice, and researchers say they potentially could protect people exposed to Ebola.
Gene Olinger, a researcher with the U.S. National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Maryland, says the drugs contain a small compound that works in two ways:
“Actually directly blocking the virus, either by blocking a critical cell component that actually our cells have that the virus needs to live, or it blocks the virus from getting in [the cells],” says Olinger.
Vascor protected 100 percent of mice against infection with Ebola, and Zoloft was 70 percent effective, according to a study in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
Olinger was part of a research team that screened 2,600 drugs already approved by regulatory authorities and found 30 agents, including antihistamines, that block the virus to some degree.
Because the drugs are already known to be safe, Olinger says they could be rolled out quickly in an Ebola epidemic. The approval process for new drugs, he adds, could take years.
“To do that requires at least 10 years, sometimes 15 years of clinical development, and requires about a billion dollars. That’s what the industry standard is. So for [this] emerging pathogen, that’s a long time to wait for an answer. So this is an opportunity to use what we have,” says Olinger.
Zoloft and Vascor would likely be prescribed off-label in an Ebola emergency, meaning they would be used against the virus even though regulators had approved them for different diseases. That practice is common among doctors when they believe off-label use may relieve patients' suffering.