The latest outbreak of Ebola has caused panic across much of West Africa, not to mention a bit of excitement in newsrooms: with only a 10% survival rate for its deadliest strain (which this outbreak, we should note, is not), Ebola is one of the most lethal diseases in the world.
But what of a cure? Ebola has been known since the mid-1970s, but scientists have yet to find a way to combat it. That’s partly because there won’t be much money in a cure: after all, the part of the world it affects is very poor, meaning anyone who does develop a drug is likely to find themselves under a moral imperative to give it away for free. Not the way to keep shareholders happy...
But progress has been made in the last few years. Here are the companies at the front line:
Alright, so a company best known for making camera film isn’t the most obvious to cure one of the world’s most lethal viruses, but one of Fujifilm’s subsidiaries, Toyama Chemical Co, reckons a pill it developed to fight flu could be used to fight Ebola. Fujifilm’s US partner, MediVector, is in talks with the US Food and Drug Administration to fast-track Favipiravir through the regulatory review process once tests on Ebola-infected monkeys are completed, which could happen as soon as the end of September.
Mapp Biopharmaceutical and LeafBio
So far the only drug tested ‘in the field’ during this outbreak. Zmapp, which is injected, hadn’t been approved for human use until last week, when it was used on two American aid workers (who survived) and a Spanish priest (who didn’t). So while it’s not known exactly how well it works (although in a study, 43% of infected monkeys recovered), Mapp Biopharmaceutical has sent what supplies of the drug it has to Liberia at no cost. It’s worth pointing out that as this strain of Ebola has a 40% survival rate, the Americans may simply have pulled through.
'Candidate for ebola vaccine'
GSK & US National Institute of Health
When GlaxoSmithKline paid $325m in May last year for Okairos, a smallish company researching vaccines for hepatitis C, malaria and influenza, little did it know this could provide the solution to its recent PR troubles: an early-stage Ebola vaccine candidate, a preventative, rather than a cure. Although the vaccine is still in pre-clinical trials, GSK reckons it could begin its first round of clinical trials later this year (a comment which has been criticised as over-optimistic). It added that ‘clinical development for a new vaccine is a long, complex process, often lasting 10 or more years’ – so we wouldn’t hold out much hope for sufferers during this outbreak.
US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases
Along with the likes of anthrax and bubonic plague, Ebola is seen as a potential weapon for bioterrorists, so it follows that the US army would want to get involved. Snappily titled it ain’t, but BCX4430 is part of a family of drugs known as nucleocides, which include some treatments for Aids. So far the drug has been tested on mice, curing 90% of them, and macaques infected with Marburg (a virus closely related to Ebola), with a similar success rate. More trials are planned for next year, meaning it could be ready by 2016.
Tekmira Pharmaceuticals Corp (Canada)
Tekmira may be Canadian, but its Ebola drug is being developed with $140m of funding from the US Department of Defence. In 2010, a paper in the Lancet showed 100% protection from Zaire Ebola Virus (the most virulent strain of the disease), and the company has since moved on to human trials. In July, though, the US Food and Drug Administration raised a question over the effect of one of TKM-Ebola’s ingredients, cytokine, in otherwise healthy patients, putting the trial on hold. At the time, Tekmira said this should be resolved by Q4 2014, allowing the trial to continue.