New Strain: In April, scientists announced that an unprecedented Ebola epidemic sweeping through West Africa was the result of a new strain of the virus.
At that time the highly lethal hemorrhagic fever had claimed 150 lives in a little more than a month, prompting the World Health Organization to say that it was the most challenging outbreak it had ever faced. Along with the difficulties of stanching the spread of the disease, medical workers faced violence stemming from locals who believed they had somehow caused the outbreak.
Since then, the situation has worsened.
“This outbreak is moving faster than our efforts to control it,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan told West African leaders at an August 1 meeting, according to the Los Angeles Times. “If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences can be catastrophic in terms of lost lives but also severe socioeconomic disruption and a high risk of spread to other countries.”
The most recent WHO report puts the death toll at 887 as of August 4—a number that represents more than a third of all people who have died of Ebola since the virus first appeared in 1976, according to NPR.
Although the present outbreak had been confined to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone; Nigeria saw its first Ebola death late last month and has identified at least five new cases. A state of emergency has been declared there while the original three countries have imposed severe measures to stop the virus, including shutting down schools and quarantining entire regions, according to Reuters.
At least five humanitarian workers, including two Americans and a prominent Liberian doctor, have contracted the virus. The Peace Corps began removing its 340 volunteers from the area last week after two members were exposed.
New Serum: Although there is no vaccine or cure for Ebola, there could be a viable treatment on the horizon in the form of a new drug called ZMapp.
The experimental serum was given to two Americans—Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol—who were stricken with the disease while working in Liberia. The results seem positive, although Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, warned against being too optimistic.
“We're hearing that the administration of this cocktail of antibodies improved both Dr. Brantly and Ms. Writebol, but you know, we don't know that,” Fauci told The Atlantic. “And we don't know that they weren't getting better anyway.”
Fauci’s caution stems from the fact that Brantly and Writebol were the first humans to receive the serum. Previously, the drug had only been only been tested in monkeys. Because of the seriousness of the outbreak however, the benefits of trying the drug outweighed the risk, Fauci told the Washington Post.
New Questions: News of Brantly and Writebol’s improvement immediately spawned speculation about whether the drug would be made available to Africans battling the disease. The answer is probably not, or at least not for a while.
There are many reasons for that, but it mainly comes down to efficacy and availability. The drug hasn’t had the benefit of the years-long clinical trials required by the U.S. Food and Drug administration and there’s no way to tell what the long-term health effects will be, Fauci told the Washington Post. Although officials are working to fast-track treatment, he estimated that Phase I trials wouldn’t be complete until January and that they would only allow the drug to be used on an emergency basis.
Even if the serum showed signs of viability, availability would be an issue. One scientist who worked closely in the development of the drug thought it would take at least two months to produce 10,000 doses. Considering Writebol required two doses, that wouldn’t go very far.
Although much has been made about the ethics of giving the drug to two white Americans when hundreds of Africans are dying (see this opinion for a thoughtful response to that), it could very well be the better option to stick with tried testing methods. At least one other promising Ebola drug was put on hold recently because of FDA concerns about clinical trials in healthy adults.
In the meantime, the WHO announced a $1 million response plan to help West African nations address the epidemic. The plan will emphasize the importance of surveillance and the need for laboratory-based diagnostic testing. Protecting healthcare workers from infection and increasing the coordinated response to spread is also highlighted.