New Ebola Medicine Gives Hope for the First Time For a Cure

After decades in which doctors were powerless to see how the virus spread around them, scientists now for the first time hope that the deadly Ebola disease can be cured. In the past two months, two drugs have been tested in Congo that increase the chance of patients surviving.

 "We have started a new chapter, we can save thousands of lives in the future," said Congolese professor of microbiology Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum at the  press conference  where the news was announced.

The success was achieved in the middle of an Ebola outbreak, in four treatment centers in the heart of the affected provinces of Ituri and North Kivu in North-East Congo. Four experimental medicines have been tested there since November last year. After 499 Congolese patients had been vaccinated, the preliminary results made it clear that two drugs produced a remarkably good result.

One of those drugs, mAb114, is based on a strong protective  antibody from the blood of a man  who survived the first Ebola outbreak in the Congo more than 20 years ago. It was developed by the American Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The second drug, REGN-EB3 consists of a cocktail of three antibodies and is manufactured by an American pharmaceutical company.
Antibodies are proteins that are normally made by the immune system and that bind to certain spots on the outside of a virus. This can prevent virus particles from entering cells. The antibodies in the two Ebola drugs are synthetic variants that are produced in a lab by using immune cells from the blood of survivors.

Of the patients who had received the two effective drugs, 34 and 29 percent died respectively, and 49 and 53 percent died of the patients who had received the other two drugs. According to the researchers, the death rate can be further reduced if patients are treated with such a successful drug at an early stage, when the number of virus particles in their blood is still low. According to Anthony Fauci, head of NIAID,  the figures show  that 89 to 94 percent of Ebola patients then survive the disease.

Extremely harsh conditions

Marion Koopmans, professor of virology at Erasmus MC, reacts positively but carefully. 'It is wonderful news that there are two drugs that score better compared to other drugs, but it is not a jubilation story. One in three patients still dies. " Koopmans first wants to see the final results before she judges. That 90 percent of patients can survive the disease with timely treatment raises questions, she says: 'How early is it early and is treatment feasible? Is it about a nurse who gets infected and who gives you a medicine right away or a resident who you find in the interior after five days? '
Mortality among Ebola patients is partly dependent on the quality of the care provided, she says: if patients manage to combat, for example, severe diarrhea and dehydration, the chance of survival may increase to 75 percent. "So you need to know if patients were comparable in this study and if the care for them was the same everywhere."

Yet Koopmans also praises the doctors and scientists who managed to set up a scientific study under extremely difficult circumstances. Helping patients in the Congo is seriously hampered by the fact that a war is raging in the affected area and rebel groups are attacking clinics and medical personnel. "Centers have been burned to the ground and the week after that the investigation was continued as normal, that gives you goosebumps."

Koopmans suspects that the interim results have been announced to offer hope to patients. Argument among the population and fear of the virus impede the approach to the disease. "If you have something to offer people, they may seek help more quickly and that is crucial to curb the outbreak."
The international research group that conducted the research under the auspices of the World Health Organization (WHO) came into being after strong criticism during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. Then more than 11 thousand people died and there was no beginning of a solution in sight . Koopmans: "It was then said: this can no longer be done, more money has to be made and as soon as there is an outbreak, patients must be immediately investigated." 

The researchers have now decided to continue the study with the two drugs that appear to have the most effect. In the past year, more than 1,800 patients have died from the disease in the African country, and this is the second largest Ebola outbreak worldwide.

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