Governments scramble to develop Ebola drugs

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Governments and drugmakers are scrambling to develop new treatments for the Ebola virus now that the World Health Organization (WHO) has eased restrictions on untested vaccines.

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The United States government is putting cash into experimental treatments, and on Tuesday, gave $4.1 million to the drugmaker BioCryst to advance its Ebola drug BCX4430, the company announced Wednesday.

The North Carolina pharmaceutical company in 2013 had received a five-year, $22 million contract from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop the drug but is now being given extra funding to speed up trials.

"The ongoing Ebola epidemic in West Africa emphasizes the urgent need for safe and effective antiviral agents for hemorrhagic fever virus diseases. With these additional funds, BioCryst can move forward with important non-human primate efficacy studies, an [investigational new drug] filing, and Phase 1 human trials of intramuscular BCX4430," said William Sheridan, chief medical officer at BioCryst.

In addition, the Food and Drug Administration recently lifted a partial hold on the drug TKM-Ebola from Tekmira Pharmaceuticals.

The Canadian drugmaker had a $140 million contract from the U.S. government to develop the drug and began human trials earlier this year. The FDA earlier this year had put a hold on the trials because of safety concerns but dropped it last week in the face of the mounting crisis in West Africa.

The FDA’s decision came amid a petition campaign on the site Change.org that called for the agency to lift the hold on TKM-Ebola’s development process. The petition garnered 73,000 signatures.

Ahmed Tejan-Sie, a North Carolina doctor who grew up in Sierra Leone and started the Change.org petition, says TKM-Ebola has shown promise in animal trials.

“I started this petition to pressure the FDA to release the hold and to fast-track other possibly life-saving drugs,” he said. “Now, it is time for Tekmira to step up and move with urgency to meet the FDA’s needs.

The National Institutes of Health, meanwhile, on Tuesday said it is working with the drugmaker Mapp Biopharmaceutical to scale up production of its Ebola drug Zmapp, which has been used to treat two American Missionaries who contracted Ebola in Liberia. Mapp said Tuesday it has run out of the drug.

The NIH is also working with British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline to advance an Ebola vaccine that it hopes to make available to healthcare workers in West Africa sometime next year.

Across the border, Canadian health officials announced they are shipping hundreds of vials of an untested Ebola vaccine to the WHO.

The Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria has already claimed more than a thousand lives, with the World Health Organization recording almost 2,000 cases.

Health officials from around the globe are working to stop the spread of the virus, fearing it could create a global pandemic.