Drug Development: Outbreak in West Africa sparked flurry of activity to combat deadly virus
Global efforts to fight Ebola ramped up this year as fears escalated that the virus would spread beyond the three West African countries where the current outbreak is centered. Both federally funded and private-sector work on vaccines to prevent and drugs to treat Ebola, once stalled amid budget cuts, began moving at a breakneck pace. And companies started racing to develop a fast and simple way to determine whether people are infected with the often-fatal virus.
As of Dec. 17, a total of 18,603 cases of Ebola had been reported in the current outbreak, with 6,915 deaths. Most of the cases have occurred in Guinea and Sierra Leone, where incidence of the disease is fluctuating, and Liberia, where cases are now declining, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Vaccines are seen as the key to stemming the crisis because they can be rapidly manufactured, tested, and deployed to the affected countries.
In November, GlaxoSmithKline said its Ebola vaccine prompted an immunological response in all 20 healthy volunteers in its first Phase I study. The company expects the results from other Phase I trials by the end of 2014. If they are positive, the vaccine will be pushed into a Phase III study, which will target health care workers in Sierra Leone and Liberia, early in 2015.
Meanwhile, a variety of Ebola treatments, from antibody cocktails to antivirals, are under development. Many researchers believe antibody cocktails that disrupt the virus’s ability to attach to host cells are the best bet for treating patients with symptoms.
But because of challenges to manufacturing and delivering those cocktails, antiviral drugs are getting a higher priority. Three trials hosted by the nonprofit Doctors Without Borders are expected to begin this month. Two antivirals, Chimerix’s brincidofovir and Fujifilm’s favipiravir, as well as whole blood and plasma from Ebola survivors, which contain virus-fighting antibodies, will be tested.
Numerous diagnostics companies are also sprinting to develop simple and fast methods for detecting the disease. These companies showed little interest in developing Ebola diagnostics before the current outbreak because demand for such tests was low.
The six currently used tests, which the Food & Drug Administration authorized for emergency use earlier this year, rely on reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction, or RT-PCR. That method requires a full test tube of blood. Health officials are hoping for a diagnostic that requires only a drop of blood, saliva, or urine and can be used where patients are being treated in West Africa. WHO is currently reviewing several applications from diagnostics companies that are hoping to get their Ebola test kits cleared for use in that region.