Although experimental treatments for the Ebola virus have already been administered to westerners who contracted the disease, scientists in London, with the help of international aid groups, plan on bringing clinical trials for those treatments to West Africa for the first time. The trials could begin in a matter of months.
Wellcome Trust's $5 million initiative will include drugs from Mapp Biopharmaceutical, Sarepta and Tekmira, according to Reuters. Mapp makes zMapp, the experimental cocktail administered to two Americans who contracted the disease in Liberia. And Tekmira recently gained the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to use its TKM-Ebola treatment on confirmed or suspected cases of the disease.
Both drugs are still in the experimental phase; researchers have not yet determined the safety or effectiveness of the treatments. Although several patients treated with zMapp have recovered from Ebola, there's not enough evidence at this point to suggest that the drug contributed to or caused that recovery.
However, with Ebola's high mortality rate and the lack of existing treatments, even experimental drugs are in high demand. As The Post reported, the recent treatment of American Ebola patients with zMapp raised a question: If Americans can get access to experimental treatments like zMapp, why aren't those treatments accessible to the thousands of Africans infected with the virus in the deadliest outbreak in history?
For those administering care and treatment to those patients, it's a complicated question, with limited drug supplies, ethical concerns and the logistics of introducing those treatments into West African facilities all at play. But as the outbreak spreads, with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now projecting as many as 1.4 million Ebola cases by early 2015, the ethical scales weighing the use of those experimental drugs have tipped towards encouraging fast-tracked trials, which could eventually lead to larger-scale production of those drugs.
That's exactly what Wellcome Trust is looking to do. According to its announcement, the charity group will work with pharmaceutical companies to identify several of the most promising Ebola treatments -- and to begin setting up the infrastructure to run clinical trials in West Africa.
"It is a huge challenge to carry out clinical trials under such difficult conditions, but ultimately this is the only way we will ever find out whether any new Ebola treatments actually work," Jeremy Farrar, Wellcome Trust's director, said in a statement. "What's more, rapid trials, followed by large-scale manufacturing and distribution of any effective treatments, might produce medicines that could be used in this epidemic."
Wellcome Trust is pairing with several international health groups, including the World Health Organization, to bring the trials to the region. Marie-Paule Kieny, the WHO's assistant director-general for health systems and innovation, noted in the release that the WHO "confirmed that it is ethical to offer unregistered therapeutic interventions to Ebola patients in the context of the current outbreak, while ensuring that as much information on their safety and efficacy is collected as possible. "
Even if the trials are successful, the plan isn't likely to produce a huge change in the way health officials are fighting the virus any time soon. Any results from the planned trials wouldn't be available for several months after they begin, as the AFP noted, and officials combating the spread of Ebola need to act swiftly to stem the transmission rates at the center of the outbreak.
In addition to experimental drug treatments, health-care workers have also tried experimental blood transfusions from survivors of the illness. As the AP noted. American doctor Rick Sacra received two blood transfusions from Ebola survivor Kent Brantly at the Nebraska Medical Center in September. Sacra, like other American Ebola patients including the Texas doctor Brantly, contracted the illness while working in Liberia, but he was flown to the United States for treatment. Sacra is also receiving experimental drug treatments, including TKM-Ebola.
Doctors believe blood transfusions could help patients fight the illness by transferring the anti-Ebola antibodies of a recent survivor into the bloodstream of a current patient. Nebraska Medical Center's Phil Smith told the AP earlier this month that the aggressive, multi-strategy treatment gave Scara the best chance for survival, but also made it impossible to determine what, if anything, helped Sacra recover. "We administered everything we had access to,” Smith added.
More than 2,800 people have died of Ebola in the current epidemic, and a new CDC estimate predicts that there could be more than 20,000 cases by November. There is no cure for the disease, and treatments are limited.