Two American aid workers infected with Ebola are getting an experimental drug so novel it has never been tested for safety in humans and was only identified as a potential treatment earlier this year, thanks to a longstanding research program by the U.S. government and the military.
The workers, Nancy Writebol and Dr. Kent Brantly, are improving, although it's impossible to know whether the treatment is the reason or they are recovering on their own, as others who have survived Ebola have done. Brantly is being treated at a special isolation unit at Atlanta's Emory University Hospital, and Writebol was expected to be flown there today in the same specially equipped plane that brought Brantly.
They were infected while working in Liberia, one of four West African nations dealing with the world's largest Ebola outbreak. On Monday, the World Health Organization said the death toll had increased from 729 to 887 deaths in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria, and that more than 1,600 people have been infected.
In a worrisome development, the Nigerian Health Minister said a doctor who had helped treat Patrick Sawyer, the Liberian-American man who died July 25 days after arriving in Nigeria, has been confirmed to have the deadly disease. Tests are pending for three other people who also treated Sawyer and are showing symptoms.
There is no vaccine or specific treatment for Ebola, but several are under development.
The experimental treatment the U.S. aid workers are getting is called ZMapp and is made by Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. of San Diego. It is aimed at boosting the immune system's efforts to fight off Ebola and is made from antibodies produced by lab animals exposed to parts of the virus.
In a statement, the company said it was working with LeafBio of San Diego, Defyrus Inc. of Toronto, the U.S. government and the Public Health Agency of Canada on development of the drug, which was identified as a possible treatment in January.
The drug is made in tobacco plants at Kentucky BioProcessing, a subsidiary of Reynolds American Inc., in Owensboro, Kentucky, said spokesman David Howard. The plant "serves like a photocopier," and the drug is extracted from the plant, he said.
Kentucky BioProcessing complied with a request from Emory and the international relief group Samaritan's Purse to provide a limited amount of ZMapp to Emory, he said. Brantly works for the aid group.
The Kentucky company is working "to increase production of ZMapp but that process is going to take several months," Howard said. The drug has been tested in animals and testing in humans is expected to begin later this year.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration must grant permission to use experimental treatments in the United States, but the FDA does not have authority over the use of such a drug in other countries, and the aid workers were first treated in Liberia. An FDA spokeswoman said she could not confirm or deny FDA granting access to any experimental therapy for the aid workers while in the U.S.
Writebol, 59, has been in isolation at her home in Liberia since she was diagnosed last month. She's now walking with assistance and has regained her appetite, said Bruce Johnson, president of SIM USA, the Charlotte, North Carolina-based group that she works for in Africa.