Answering Your Questions About Ebola Treatments And Vaccines
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Last Friday on the program, we answered some of the questions you sent us about Ebola and today we'll take on a few more, specifically about treatment for the disease. And to do that, I'm joined by our science correspondent Richard Harris. Welcome, Richard.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Hi, Melissa.
BLOCK: Now, let's start with a question that was sent in by Andrea Asuaje of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and she asks this - how exactly are Ebola patients treated for the disease, aside from isolation?
HARRIS: Well, of course, everyone is interested to learn about drugs that are specific to treat Ebola but in truth the most effective treatment available right now is to treat the symptoms. This is called supportive care, it means making sure people get IV drips, to give them plenty of fluids, to replace the salts and minerals they lose by being so sick. They get oxygen if they need that and if they get an unrelated bacterial infection they'll get an antibiotic for that. As for drugs to knock out the Ebola virus itself, there is nothing proven on the shelves right now.
BLOCK: Nothing proven, Richard, but we've been hearing a lot about experimental drugs that are being used.
HARRIS: Indeed we have, yeah. And they fall into three categories. First, are the antibodies that boost the immune system - ZMapp is an example of a drug that does that. Second are antiviral drugs that work against other diseases, like HIV or hepatitis. At this point, those are quite speculative but we just heard in Jason's piece the people are trying that in Africa as well. And third, drugs that bind to the Ebola virus's genetic material. These are theoretically very appealing but again there's no proof that they actually work either.
BLOCK: One of the drugs that you mentioned, Richard, ZMapp - earlier on in this we heard the supply of that drug had run out. Is that still the case?
HARRIS: Well, the company says its supplies are exhausted but in fact there may still be a few cases here and there, stashed away by the WHO or other health organizations. They're playing that one very close to the vest.
BLOCK: So these drugs are experimental. They are being used. Is there any proof that they actually work?
HARRIS: Well, actually we have no idea right now. The sample size is simply too small. Some people who've taken them have lived, some have died and there's no saying really whether the drug has tipped that balance at all. But that said, scientists are trying to ramp up studies in Africa with plenty of sick patients. And those could begin by the end of November, at the very earliest. So we might get answers out of that but not immediately.
BLOCK: Well, say they do find an effective treatment, right? It's proved to work. How quickly could that be scaled up so it could get to the places that need it the most and need it fast?
HARRIS: Well, not fast enough is the short answer. The longer answer is it also depends on the drug. The ZMapp is grown in genetically modified tobacco plants and that's a long process to produce the drug. The company and others are looking at more conventional biotech production methods to speed that up but still it'll take a while. If one of the regular antiviral drugs happen to work, well, those can be produced fairly rapidly, so that would be hopeful. And production of the drugs that bind to the viruses RNA would take a long time to ramp up as well. So it really depends on the drug.
BLOCK: Let's turn to another question sent in by a listener, Richard. This is from Ajay Gupta of Cupertino California and he asks people lucky enough to be cured of Ebola, have they built any immunity to it? We do get a lot of questions about this.
HARRIS: And the answer is yes they do build up immunity. The CDC says these people are likely immune from the strain of Ebola for at least 10 years and possibly longer. And for that reason, these people are being recruited to take on some of the more dangerous jobs in West Africa.
BLOCK: And because they're immune, that leads to another question because the blood plasma from some patients who have survived Ebola has been used to treat other patients. We know that Kent Brantly, the doctor, donated some of his blood to the NBC cameraman who has Ebola, also to another aid worker. How effective is blood plasma of survivors as a treatment?
HARRIS: Well, we don't really know the answer to its effectiveness but we do know that there's a solid theoretical underpinning for it. In fact, this technique was actually used quite widely before antibiotics were invented. If you ever had a gamma globulin shot you've essentially had this kind of serum treatment. There's a small amount of experience with Ebola and it is hopeful. But the problem is it's a really logistical nightmare to produce the serum in any volume, particularly in Africa where the health care system is barely functional to begin with.
BLOCK: Here's another question from a listener, Richard. This is from Daniel Johnson, Jr., of Cincinnati, Ohio, who asks this. Can you update us on progress that's been made to get a vaccine developed? In other words, not a treatment to cure Ebola, Richard, but a vaccine to keep us from getting the disease in the first place.
HARRIS: Right. And the answer is one vaccine is already being tested for safety in a small number of volunteers. It's made by GlaxoSmithKline. It's being tested here in the U.S. and they're starting the safety tests in Africa. The second vaccine from a small biotech company is under development. I called the company today they won't say if it's actually being tested as of yet. And Johnson & Johnson is working on a third vaccine but they say it won't be ready for testing until sometime next spring, at the earliest.
BLOCK: This is not a new disease, Richard. Ebola's been around since 1976. There've been a couple dozen outbreaks. Why isn't there a vaccine yet?
HARRIS: Well, one reason is every outbreak before this one was quickly brought under control simply by isolating sick people to stop the spread of the disease. So a vaccine wasn't really necessary. That said, the U.S. government has been funding both vaccine and drug studies in case Ebola becomes a biological weapon. That research now is being accelerated in response to the humanitarian crisis in West Africa.
BLOCK: OK, NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Richard, thanks for answering these questions and thanks to our listeners for sending them in.
HARRIS: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.