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In a few short months Ebola has brought West African countries to the brink of disaster; the most formidable task we face is to contain the spread to prevent further escalation.

Why is it that in a world where we have the means for research and development of advanced technologies, such as 3D printers and state-of-the-art medical facilities, we still lack a reliable drug to fight against Ebola?

It has been reported that about a decade ago a drug was being tested and found to be 100% effective in curing monkeys with Ebola. However, that research failed to gain traction and clinical trials were never performed to see how this drug would fare on humans. This research came to a screeching halt because pharmaceutical companies deemed it to be an unprofitable venture, due to Ebola being relatively rare at the time and mostly affecting a poor population.

Perhaps, if the research had continued then, health organisations and aid workers today would have been better prepared to deal with the emergency at hand, and countries around the world would not be scrambling to find a cure under the immense pressure of time. This has directly led to our current dire situation of a limited scope of knowledge, lack of research and no human clinical trials to discern effective Ebola drugs with few or no side effects. As time quickly slips away, we are left amid gaping holes of uncertainties and palpable risks.

Dick Cheney, a previous Vice President of the United States, originally approved and allocated a budget to fund research regarding rare and hazardous viruses. It was in light of 9/11 and the subsequent anthrax terrorist attacks against the US, that Dick Cheney assigned utmost importance to research that would help mitigate any future dangers associated with bio-terrorist attacks.

Among the three most prominent drugs currently being researched today, Brincidofovir is the only one approved for testing by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A North Carolina drug-maker called Chimerix produces the drug and has been working with the US Department of Defence. Brincidofovir is an anti-viral drug and was developed as a treatment against smallpox; however, tests have suggested it may work against Ebola as well. Brincidofovir was the drug used to treat American video-journalist Ashoka Mukpo who was infected with the virus while he worked in Liberia.

ZMapp is another drug in existence and it was used to treat Dr Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol for Ebola. It is produced by a San Diego-based biotech firm called ZMapp Pharmaceuticals, which uses the tobacco plant for the production of this drug. ZMapp is a cocktail of antibodies engineered to recognise the virus and bind to the effected cells. It is very time consuming to produce, supplies are limited and it has yet to be FDA approved.

The TKM-Ebola injection produced by Tekira Pharmaceuticals of Canada is another potential life-saving drug. It is currently in limited supply as well, and works by blocking genes that help the Ebola virus reproduce and spread. It has been used in at least one patient.

It is so far known that these drugs, used in conjunction with the transfusion of blood plasma from recovered Ebola patients, have been an effective cure for the limited number of patients treated in the US so far.

While the body of a person infected with Ebola fights to get rid of the virus from the effected cells, their immune system produces antibodies that help to fend off the virus along with the aid of drugs. It is these antibodies, present in blood plasma, that are then injected in to other patients infected with the same virus, as inoculation. This transfusion acts as an antidote to the Ebola virus, thus facilitating a faster recovery.

In an attempt to abate the threat, an all-hands-on-deck approach is being used and drug testing has not been limited to the Western nations. A Chinese drug-maker that has military ties, Sihuan Pharmaceutical Holdings Group Ltd., has already sent thousands of doses of an experimental drug to Africa and is planning to carry out clinical trials there.

As the struggle to find an ebola drug intensifies and in attempt to alleviate the threat, prominent billionaires such as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Bill Gates of Microsoft, are among the people that have donated millions of dollars to fund research for Ebola.

Due to the disarray caused by the virus, it has been difficult to get accurate statistics from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, the countries hardest hit by the virus.

However, from the time of its inception and still counting, we do know that about 5,000 lives have succumbed to this deadly virus.

Shilpa Gohil, Correspondent (Our World)

Image Courtesy: openDemocracy (https://www.flickr.com/photos/opendemocracy/523438942), Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic | Flickr

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