Ebola can no longer be considered as an incurable disease, scientists claim as positive results have been found in a trial run of drugs in the Ebola-struck country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
According to the research, which is still in its early stages, two of the four drugs in the trial was found to increase the survival rate of patients already infected by Ebola by up to 90% if treated early.
The trial is being conducted by an international research group coordinated by the World Health Organization (WHO) consisting of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and pharmaceutical companies.
“From now on, we will no longer say that Ebola is incurable,” said Prof Jean-Jacques Muyembe, the director-general of the Institut National de Recherche Biomédicale in DRC, which has overseen the trial. “These advances will help save thousands of lives.”
Although there is a pre-existing experimental vaccine against Ebola that medical practitioners are offering, it does little for the thousands of others that are already infected by the disease.
Just a month ago, the World Health Organization announced that the deadly Ebola virus is now an outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo making the virus a global health emergency.
The outbreak in Congo has been ongoing for almost a year, with 2,418 confirmed cases and 1,676 deaths. The WHO estimates 12 new cases are reported daily, making the situation the second deadliest Ebola epidemic ever.
In an effort to mitigate the ongoing outbreak and amid rising tensions in Congo, the research team sought to test four drugs to treat Ebola and measure its effectiveness.
Primarily, a drug called ZMapp is currently considered the standard of care during Ebola outbreaks. It had been tested and used during the devastating Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014 where the virus killed more than 11,000 people. In Particular, ZMapp was used in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea.
Patients who took Zmapp experienced an overall mortality rate of 49%, while the numbers can go as high as 75% for patients who do not seek medical treatment, Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said.
The trial was initiated back in November where patients from four treatment centers in the east side of the country—where the infection was the worst—were randomly assigned to receive one of four investigational therapies. Patients could either receive an antiviral drug called Remdesivir or one of three drugs that use monoclonal antibodies.
The goal of the trial was to determine whether or not any of the four drugs administered were promising or effective enough to outperform the currently used Zmapp drug.
Based on the initial results of the experiment, scientists were able to significantly say that two of the four drugs—particular to those with monoclonal antibodies, which block the virus—had substantially more effect than Zmapp.
The preliminary data from the first 681 patients (out of a planned 725) showed results strong enough to prompt the WHO to stop the trial and to start administering the two effective drugs and to stop using both Zmapp and Remdesivir.
“This trial – the first-ever multi-drug randomized trial for Ebola – has happened despite such highly complex and challenging circumstance,” said Dr. Jeremy Farrar, the director of Wellcome and the co-chair of the WHO Ebola therapeutics group. “A long-running outbreak like this takes a terrible toll on the communities affected and it is a sign of just how difficult this epidemic has been to control that there have already been enough patients treated to tell us more about the efficacy of these four drugs.”
The monoclonal antibody cocktail produced by a company called Regeneron Pharmaceuticals had the biggest impact on lowering death rates, down to 29%, while NIAID’s monoclonal antibody, called mAb114, had a mortality rate of 34%. Consequently, death rates dropped to 11% with mAb114 and just 6% with Regeneron’s drug.
Comparatively, ZMapp’s mortality rate was 24% and 33% with Remdesivir.
Monoclonal antibody drugs are effective because they are a cocktail, and have become a mainstay of modern medicine. Primarily, these type drugs are used to create specific antibodies that hamper viruses like Ebola from infecting other cells but specifically is meant to effectively target Ebola’s shape-changing characteristics where drugs—that aren’t cocktails—are not effective of doing so.
Now, a new trial will start but this one will mainly focus on the effectiveness of the two drugs and to test particular situations where the drugs can be administered, according to the WHO’s director of health emergencies, Mike Ryan.
“Today’s news puts us one more step to saving more lives,” said Ryan. “The success is clear. But there’s also a tragedy linked to the success. The tragedy is that not enough people are being treated. We are still seeing too many people staying away from treatment centers, people not being found in time to benefit from these therapies.”
“We won’t ever get rid of Ebola but we should be able to stop these outbreaks from turning into major national and regional epidemics,” Farrar said.