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As Ebola spreads, drug companies race to develop treatments

October 2, 2014, 7:56 PM UTC
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Kyle Bean for Fortune

Ebola has hit the U.S., and fears of further infections are rising following the news that a Liberian national in Dallas has been infected with the disease, and may have come in contact with as many as 80 people.

In Africa, the infected population is continuing to grow. As many as 21,000 people are sick with the virus in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and that number could grow to up to 1.4 million people by January, according to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control.

Drugs and vaccines are desperately needed to combat the spread of the disease, so what do the U.S. and other nations have to work with right now?

ZMapp, the drug used to treat the first two U.S. citizens infected with Ebola while working in West Africa, has become well known across the world. The medicine, which allowed both patients to survive, was developed using U.S. federal grant money and in partnership with the Pentagon and national health agencies, and it has been fast-tracked for further testing. However, all the available doses have been used. The limited amount of ZMapp was given to two Americans, a Spanish priest and an undeclared number of doctors in West Africa.

But ZMapp isn’t the only option out there, nor the only project underway by government groups. A host of biopharmaceutical and pharmaceutical companies are working in tandem with government units on treatments — and preventatives — for the highly contagious and deadly disease.

Here are some of the top Ebola treatments underway beyond ZMapp.

Tekmira Pharmaceuticals

Canada-based Tekmira Pharmaceuticals (TKMR) has an Ebola treatment that utilizes an RNA interference mechanism, which essentially targets and shuts down the viral strain responsible for the outbreak. The medicine, whose development was funded in part by the U.S. Department of Defense, had been given to one U.S. patient infected abroad. He survived the disease.

Tekmira is coordinating with an international group, including the CDC and the World Health Organization, to begin fast-tracked clinical studies in West Africa. Nearly 3.2 million pounds, or $5.2 million, will fund the testing.

Hemispherx Biopharma

Hemispherx Biopharma (HEB) will begin testing two of its existing drugs in partnership with the DoD to see if the drugs can combat the deadly disease. Alferon, one of the drugs, is currently used to treat genital warts caused by the human papilloma virus. The other medicine, Ampligen, is an experimental antiviral used to combat a range of disorders.

BioCryst Pharmaceuticals

BioCryst (BCRX) received $2 million more in funding from the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases to accelerate its development of a drug that can treatment hemorrhagic fever viruses, including Ebola and Marburg. The total contract to develop the drug is worth $26.3 million, which shows just a fraction of what world governments are dedicating to fight this outbreak. The company will use the funds to begin testing its experimental drug on primates and hopes to move into testing on humans next year.


NanoViricides (NNVC) has started synthesizing a second-generation Ebola drug candidate and is now working to move it into evaluation. The company specializes in nanomedicine technology that directly attacks the Ebola virus even if the strain mutates, which is especially key to the current outbreak since the virus has been changing quickly. The drug is able to mimic the sites to which the virus binds and allows the drug to outsmart mutations.

Beyond treatments: Prevention

Companies are not only focused on ways to treat the virus once it spreads, they’re also looking for long-term solutions to stop Ebola altogether. GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), NewLink Genetics (NLNK) and Crucell are all working on vaccines that could stem the spread before it even starts.

A panel of more than 70 experts organized by the WHO met to provide input on an Ebola vaccine. The group is hoping to “accomplish, within a matter of months, work that normally takes from two to four years, without compromising international standards for safety and efficacy,” according to a statement.

Governments, including those of the U.S. and the U.K., have fast tracked an Ebola vaccine development and testing, though finding a one-size-fits-all shot is a difficult task, especially with a fast-mutating virus such as Ebola.

NewLink Genetics will start safety trials of its vaccine within weeks, and GlaxoSmithKline entered Phase 1 clinical trials with its vaccine in partnership with the National Institutes of Health.

The Public Health Agency of Canada is also starting human-safety trials this month with an Ebola preventative. It provided 800 vials of its vaccine to WHO, which translates into about 1,500 to 2,000 doses to be tested.