Global fear of Ebola outbreak stokes a frenzy of new R&D, production plans

With media organizations broadcasting lurid images of the Liberian military's violent effort to enforce a quarantine in an effort to corral Ebola in the slums in Monrovia, the frenzy of attention continued to concentrate a spotlight on the sudden rush to get early-stage experimental treatments or vaccines to West Africa.

Ebola virus under an electron microscope--Courtesy of CDC

R&D efforts in Ebola have been a sideshow up until now. But with the lethal virus raising fears in every part of the globe, reports of seemingly miraculous cures have helped raise a hue and cry to provide unapproved therapies to West Africans at risk. And the British government and the Wellcome Trust responded today by pledging to put up about $11 million to fast track work in the field, demanding that work be commissioned and finished in two months--overnight by biotech standards.

The American doctor Kent Brantly, meanwhile, is slated to leave a U.S. hospital today after being successfully treated with ZMAPP, an experimental drug that was developed by Mapp Biopharmaceutical. The tiny San Diego-based Mapp is reportedly scaling up new production of its treatment after running through the small number of doses on hand. But there are severe doubts about their ability to meet even part of the demand, with experts saying that they should have already treated or vaccinated some 30,000 people in order to rein in the sudden outbreak.

And there are no stockpiles to turn to.

"This demand is likely to be higher than many people realize," Oxford epidemiologist Oliver Brady wrote in Nature. "For example, our analysis suggests that, even under a conservative scenario, up to 30,000 people would have so far required treatment or prophylaxis in the current outbreak--substantially more than in any previous outbreak. The difference reflects the scale of the current emergency, which has made the jump from rural to urban areas. The WHO warned last week that reported numbers of cases and deaths "vastly underestimate" the size of the problem."

Tekmira ($TKMR), which had its gene-silencing Ebola treatment put on hold recently only to get a sudden green light on potential production, touted the latest primate results demonstrating that its experimental drug protected monkeys infected with the Marburg virus, a close cousin of Ebola.

"These positive findings build upon our extensive work in anti-viral RNAi therapeutics and provide further validation of our strong LNP product platform, which includes RNAi therapeutics addressing chronic Hepatitis B infection and lethal hemorrhagic fever viruses," said Dr. Mark Murray, Tekmira's CEO, in a statement.

Tekmira's stock, which has soared 85% in the past month, was up about 5% in premarket trading today--proving once again that there's nothing like an outbreak to rev up a biotech company's share price. The death toll currently stands at about 1,350.

- here's the release from Tekmira
- read the piece from Nature