DEAR DOCTOR K:
Like everyone, I’m afraid that the Ebola virus could spread in the United States. There must be research underway to find treatments, and vaccines to prevent it in the first place. Please tell me there is.
Infection with the Ebola virus is indeed frightening. In West Africa, the site of the latest outbreak of Ebola, more than half the people who have become infected with it have died. I doubt there will be an epidemic of Ebola in the U.S. and other developed nations, but there have been cases, and there will be more.
There is some encouraging news to report. Last month, an international research team developed a “cocktail” of several antibodies to the Ebola virus, called ZMapp. (Antibodies attach themselves to the virus. This signals other immune system cells to kill it.) This treatment was given to monkeys several days after they became infected with the virus. Most of the monkeys already were having symptoms from the infection when the treatment started. All of the animals treated with ZMapp survived. Animals that did not receive the treatment died.
But keep in mind that treatments that work in animals don’t always work in humans. Even though monkeys are more like humans than they are like other animals such as mice and rats, treatments that work in monkeys don’t always work in humans.
Another note of encouragement about ZMapp is that two U.S. health care workers who became infected with the virus while working in Africa were treated with the medicine. Each recovered, but that does not prove that the ZMapp treatment caused the recovery.
A second international team recently reported that it had created a vaccine that protected monkeys against becoming sick with the Ebola virus. As with ZMapp, this encouraging result in monkeys does not guarantee that the vaccine will work in humans and be free of complications.
The first reported outbreak of Ebola virus infection in Africa occurred about 40 years ago. There have been other outbreaks since, each producing terrible casualties. Why didn’t we already have a proven treatment, and a proven vaccine, to use when this new Ebola outbreak began? The techniques for making ZMapp, and for making the vaccine, have been around for some time.
I believe the answer is that neither the government nor the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries invested enough in medical research. The government’s ability to support research is dependent on tax dollars, and no one likes to pay taxes. The private sector invests when it sees a big problem affecting lots of people — people who can pay for the treatments and vaccines. Until the current outbreak, that didn’t seem likely with Ebola.
Every time I close a column saying we need to invest more in biomedical research, I get letters from some readers who say, “Money doesn’t grow on trees — we just don’t have the money to support more research.” I believe that, as a society, we do have the money, and we are asking for trouble by not investing it to protect ourselves.