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2 experimental Ebola drugs helping to save lives in Congo, health authorities say

Health workers wearing protective gear check on a

Health workers wearing protective gear check on a patient isolated in a plastic cube at an Ebola treatment center in Beni, Congo, July 13. Photo Credit: AP/Jerome Delay

Two experimental Ebola treatments were so effective against the virus in a clinical trial that an independent monitoring board called for the study to be stopped in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and that all patients be allowed access to the effective treatments.

The two medications – both known as monoclonal antibodies – were able to cure about 90 percent of patients who received them. The discovery means there is now a standard of care for Ebola, a hemorrhagic viral infection long known for its exceptionally high mortality.

Of the 2,800 people who have been diagnosed in the epidemic that has been sweeping a vast swath of the Congo since last August, more than 1,800 have died. The two drugs may help change the course of treatment, doctors said Monday.

“Clearly, there was a beneficial effect,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, referring to a drug known as mAB 114, an antibody-based treatment originally derived from the blood of a 1995 Ebola survivor from the village of Kitwit. The antibody was extensively studied at Fauci’s institute, which helped fund the research.

The other effective treatment is a cocktail of three antibodies developed by Regeneron, a New York pharmaceutical company, and is known as REGN-EB3. That treatment and mAb114 were administered as part of a clinical trial involving two other drugs, ZMapp and remdesivir. Neither of those therapies achieved the cure rates of the other two. As of August 9, 681 patients in the Congo were enrolled in the trial.

Both mAb114 and REGN-EB3 worked best among patients who had a relatively low viral load, Fauci said, which means the pathogens had not yet replicated profusely in their bodies. Scientists found that only 6 percent of patients who received REGN-EB3 died of Ebola and 11 percent of those administered mAB114 succumbed to the virus. Both drugs are given intravenously.

By comparison, 24 percent of patients who were treated with ZMapp, a less effective and older monoclonal antibody, died. And 33 percent of patients treated with remdesivir, an antiviral drug, succumbed to the disease.

Fauci and other doctors saw hope in the study’s numbers

“It means we do have now what looks like treatments for a disease, which not too long ago we really didn’t have an approach or a standard of care for,” Fauci said during a telephone news briefing. “We will be able to improve the survival of people with Ebola and make more of them more enthusiastic about coming in for care.”

 Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Program, said many families with Ebola-stricken relatives either hid them or brought them to a care facility in an advanced stage, a point when nothing was effective.

“This gives us a new tool in our tool box but it doesn’t stop Ebola,” said Ryan, who described the viral menace as relentless in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That said, Ryan noted the study’s findings provided good news in a fight that has been plagued with setbacks – and death.

The Congo is in the grip of a yearlong Ebola epidemic – a medical crisis that is being fought amid crossfire and conflict involving rebel forces. Health care workers have been killed by warring factions.

But Fauci and Ryan underscored that  the two new treatments not only offered a glimmer of hope in an otherwise deadly outbreak, the medications may also stand as a turning point in the fight against the disease.

Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum, director-general of the Institut National de Recherche Biomédicale in the Congo, agreed. His institute co-sponsored the research in collaboration with the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Speaking through an interpreter translating his responses from French to English, Muyembe-Tamfyum, 77, who has been fighting Ebola in the Congo since 1976, said he was not only happy with the study’s results, he predicted that scores of people could be saved from Ebola in the future.

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