Ebola: new serum raises hopes for cure
As the Ebola death toll continues to climb in West Africa, the “miraculous” effect of an experimental serum on two US missionaries has raised hopes of an effective treatment
An experimental serum treatment on two US missionaries has raised hopes of an effective Ebola treatment after doctors reported a “miraculous” improvement in the health of one of those who contracted the haemorrhagic disease.
The development came as a leading British scientist claimed the end of the Ebola epidemic may be in sight, with the disease already peaking in the county where the outbreak originated.
Chris Witty, a DfID advisor and Professor of Public and International health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said Guinea had already seen the worst of the outbreak and cases were now beginning to decrease.
“The outbreak is very unusual,” he said in a podcast. “This is the largest outbreak of Ebola that so far has been recorded. The numbers are increasing in Sierra Leone but they appear to have peaked in Guinea where the epidemic first started.
“What we hope is that with good management and good control we should be able to start to see the peak of the epidemic and then it will start to decrease.”
As the death toll from the epidemic in West Africa reached at least 887 by August 1, while the total number of cases in the four West African countries affected stood at 1,603 on the same date, the World Health Organisation said.
The body also confirmed that Nigeria was now dealing with four cases of Ebola, including a doctor who treated Patrick Sawyer, a US lawyer who died in Lagos last month after contracting the disease in Liberia, spreading panic in Africa’s biggest city.
Just three vials of the experimental serum known as “ZMapp”, which had only previously been tested on monkeys, were flown to Liberia for the treatment of two US missionaries.
Dr Kent Brantly, who has since been flown to an isolation unit in Atlanta, at first bravely insisted the serum be given to his older colleague, 59-year-old Nancy Writebol, but when his own condition deteriorated sharply he was given the first dose.
“Within an hour of receiving the medication, Brantly’s condition was nearly reversed. His breathing improved; the rash over his trunk faded away. One of his doctors described the events as ‘miraculous’,”
reported CNN, citing sources with firsthand knowledge of the situation.
A medevac flight using a specially adapted private jet carrying Ms Writebol, who is in a “serious” condition, left Liberia last night and was due to arrive in Atlanta this morning.
“ZMapp”, which had been developed by a San Diego-based company, Mapp Biopharmaceutical, is a one a class of new drugs known as “monoclonal antibodies” that use uniquely manufactured proteins to prevent the Ebola virus from infecting new cells. They have also been used in the treatment of some cancers.
Martin Hibberd, Professor of Emerging Infectious Disease at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said that the ZMab category of drugs had “a good record of safety” but would need further clinical trials.
“In this case (ZMAb), the antibodies have been shown in several animal models to be ‘neutralising’, and thus they act by eliminating the virus, probably by stopping the virus infecting new cells,”
he told The Telegraph.
“Therapeutic monoclonal antibodies have been available for another virus, Respiratory Syncytial virus (RSV), for some years and there is hope this approach may be applicable to other viral diseases, such as Dengue [Fever],”
The performance of the drug could explain the sudden improvement in Dr Brantly’s condition that enabled him to take a shower on his own hours after it was administered, and then walk almost unaided into Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital, where he is now being treated.
Doctors in Atlanta said on Sunday that Dr Brantly, 33, who has two young children, was still “improving” but cautioned that it was too early to predict with certainty if he would survive.
Amber Brantly, who has been able to speak with her husband through the glass, said in a statement that he was in good spirits and had “thanked everyone for their prayers and asked for continued prayer for Nancy Writebol’s safe return and full recovery.”
Ms Writebol, a missionary also working for the North Carolina-based Samaritan’s Purse organisation, was said by her son Jeremy to be “still struggling” but also showing signs of “improvement” with the family optimistic she will recover.
The continuing threat of the Ebola outbreak cast a shadow over a flagship three-day US-Africa Summit that opened in Washington DC yesterday attended by nearly 50 African heads of state, although the presidents of Liberia and Sierra Leone were both forced to cancel.
The Summit was intended to present Africa as a new investment destination for US companies and break stereotypes about the Continent as a place of war and disease, a message that officials conceded has not been helped by Ebola occupying most of the headlines on Africa in recent weeks.