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Investors Pump Prospects Of Unproven Ebola Treatments

Tobacco plants grown at an Owensboro, Ky., biotechnology firm were used to help produce an experimental serum used to treat two Americans infected with Ebola.
Tobacco plants grown at an Owensboro, Ky., biotechnology firm were used to help produce an experimental serum used to treat two Americans infected with Ebola.

Interest in drugs that might be used to treat Ebola virus has hit a fever pitch, but the buzz isn't simply about fear of Ebola, or about saving lives in poor nations of West Africa. It's also about money.

Take, for example, the Canadian drug company Tekmira. It is trying to develop an Ebola drug that's based on a technology called RNAi. This is an intriguing concept, using genetic material rather than conventional drugs to disrupt the Ebola virus. The company says it has a $140 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to develop this concept.

But the company also trades on the stock market (NASDAQ:TKMR,TSX:TKM), so — no surprise — there's a fair amount of chatter online by investors pumping up the prospects of the putative Ebola drug and hoping to make a buck.

Tekmira's experimental drug is by no means ready for prime time. In fact, the first tests simply to determine whether it's safe to give to people screeched to a halt earlier this spring, after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration raised concerns.

On Thursday the company announced that the FDA had eased that hold somewhat. The human tests on healthy volunteers are still forbidden, but the company says it now has the option of offering the drug to people who are infected with Ebola and therefore already facing a life-threatening risk.

The company didn't say whether it actually plans to do that. And it's not clear whether that drug would be the best option for people in West Africa currently ill with Ebola. There are certainly more conventional options. There's an experimental drug called BCX4430 — based on traditional pharmacology — that, like the Tekmira drug, has protected animals from Ebola and related viruses.

And then there are antibody-based treatments. That's what the two American missionaries who contracted Ebola received. Though these were high-tech antibodies, the concept of using antibodies to treat disease goes back more than a century. The decision to try these antibodies on the missionaries generated huge media attention.

"The plain fact is we don't know whether that treatment is helpful, harmful or doesn't have any impact," CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said Thursday at a congressional hearing. "And we're unlikely to know from the experience of two or a handful of patients whether it works."

The truth is that patients who receive good supportive care can get better — for example, if they get good hydration, or oxygen and treatment for other infections. Frieden noted that when patients with an Ebola-like disease received good treatment in Germany a few years ago, three-quarters of them survived.

Health officials are concerned that all this talk about a breakthrough drug for Ebola is a distraction. Frieden said drugs won't stop the current outbreak. What's needed is an effective campaign in West Africa to identify people who are sick with Ebola, so they can be isolated and given good supportive care. The World Health Organization is hoping to stir a stronger international reaction to put the needed people, facilities and supplies in place.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.

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