Ebola: Questions, answers about an unproven drug
WASHINGTON (AP) – An experimental Ebola drug has been used to treat two American aid workers and a Spanish missionary priest. Could Liberian doctors be next?
The Liberian government said Monday that it will receive doses of the drug to treat two doctors in the country. They would be the first Africans to receive it.
The manufacturer, Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc., said in a statement posted Monday afternoon on its website that the supply of the drug is now exhausted.
The announcement came as the World Health Organization considered ethical questions about who should get access to an experimental drug in an emergency.
Some questions and answers about the Ebola drug:
Q: What is this drug?
A: Called ZMapp, it is a cocktail of specially engineered antibodies designed to target and inactivate the Ebola virus.
Q: What do we know about whether it works?
A: Very little. Various antibodies have been tested in small numbers of monkeys, but not people. In one study, 43 percent of treated monkeys survived when the drug was given after the animals showed symptoms.
Mapp Biopharmaceutical now is developing a combination of three antibodies that seemed most promising in those animal studies.
Q: Why isn’t ZMapp being tested more widely to find out if it works in people?
A: There’s not enough available. The antibodies are grown inside tobacco plants, and then extracted and purified, a slow process. U.S. officials have estimated that only a modest amount could be produced in two or three months, unless some way to speed production is found.
Q: What does it mean that the two American aid workers who received the drug are reported to be slowly improving?
A: Top U.S. health officials stress that there’s no way to know if the drug really helped, or if those two patients would have been among the 40 percent of people who are surviving this outbreak anyway. Without human studies, there also isn’t any way to know if the drug might harm instead of help.
There is no proven treatment for Ebola. But basic supportive care – things like keeping patients hydrated, maintaining their blood pressure and treating any complicating infections – can make a difference in survival, says Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The two U.S. patients, both infected in Liberia, are being treated at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.