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The current outbreak of the Ebola virus in West African countries has claimed over 700 lives. Ebola is lethal and has no cure, at least, it didn’t until this week.
Two of those infected with Ebola in Liberia, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, are American missionaries , and they were flown back to the US in a special medical plane last week. The outlook was not good and Brantly even phoned his wife to say goodbye knowing he was about to die. But he didn’t die, and is now well on his way to recovery thanks to an experimental new drug.
The drug is called ZMapp and is being referred to as a secret serum in the fight against Ebola. It has been developed by biotech company Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. and has to be stored at sub-zero temperature. Using it requires waiting for it to thaw out.
ZMapp is so new, Brantly and Writebol are the first humans to receive it after successful testing was carried out on monkeys. However, those tests saw the drug administered 48 hours after infection. In Brantly’s case the drug worked 9 days after he’d shown signs of infection, which is very good news.
When I first heard about the Gulfstream air ambulance transporting Ebola patients back to the US I thought it was quite dangerous due to the high risk of infection. But it turns out vials of ZMapp were first sent to Liberia and administered before the missionaries traveled.
It sounds as if ZMapp will be an important drug in the fight against future outbreaks of Ebola, but its use seems unlikely beyond the odd compassionate case right now. ZMapp is not approved for use on humans and both missionaries had to sign consent forms to receive it. And even if it was approved it would be difficult to get to West African countries in large quantities quickly due to the required sub zero temperatures, but also because of the way the antibodies are generated and then harvested from mouse blood.
There are other treatments in development, but ZMapp has been proven to work in humans so I expect its testing and approval will be fast tracked if possible.