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Swiss Health Officials Try New Ways To Combat Ebola


Health officials in Switzerland announced this morning that they're planning to test some experimental Ebola therapies in West Africa starting next month. The tests will take place at Ebola clinics set up by Doctors Without Borders. They involve two drugs as well as a test using blood taken from people who've recovered from Ebola.

Let's bring in NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris. Richard, good morning.


GREENE: So what drugs are being tested here?

HARRIS: Well, French researchers working in Guinea are testing a drug called favipiravir. It's used in Japan right now as a treatment for the flu. There's just a little bit of evidence in rodents that it can work against Ebola, but there's a good supply of it and it seems to be reasonably safe so they figure it's worth testing. The other drug is an experimental drug called brincidofivir, which is tested by a group from Oxford University at a site that they haven't settled upon yet. This is also a drug with very limited information about whether it actually works against Ebola, but it has been tested for safety in about 1,000 people and is well-tolerated. So there was a scientific panel from the World Health Organization, they picked these two drugs as worth trying mostly because they seem recently safe and available in adequate supply.

GREENE: One drug notably missing - ZMapp - we heard so much about that drug early in the epidemic. Why is that not getting - why was that not chosen as one of the ones to be tested?

HARRIS: Well, even though ZMapp has been shown to be effective in monkeys against Ebola, it is not in this initial round of testing and that's simply because there isn't enough of it. The same goes for the only other drug that has performed really well in monkey studies and that's called Tekmira-Ebola. The company that makes that drug recently said it would have a supply ready for testing in December so it wouldn't be too surprising to see these two drugs tested sometime next year, just not in this first round.

GREENE: OK Richard, well, part of the treatment for patients in the United States involved blood products actually taken from people who've recovered from Ebola. How is that looking right now as an effective treatment?

HARRIS: Well, we simply can't say based on the experience so far because people in the U.S. who got that also got excellent care all around. In addition to the blood products they also had a variety of experimental drugs. So it needs some real concrete testing and that is going to happen in the coming months. Scientists from the Antwerp Institute for Tropical Medicine plan to test these products in Guinea. The idea is that blood and refined blood plasma contain antibodies that people have developed to combat the Ebola virus. So it's reasonable to think that these antibodies could help a sick person fight off the virus, but the catch is that blood-related products can't be mass-produced so it's harder to scale up this therapy if it turns out that indeed it works.

GREENE: You said something important there just a moment ago that people treated in the United States got very good treatment - not always the case in some of the poor countries where we've seen this epidemic - and you've reported that there are some extra ethical issues in poorer countries when there is experimental testing because you need a placebo sometimes and that involves people actually not getting treatment. I mean, how are scientists navigating all of that?

HARRIS: Well, with difficulty and in fact, they haven't fully navigated it. These plans still haven't passed the ethical review from the local authorities so that hurdle is yet to be jumped entirely, but if they go forward as planned, everybody in these studies at any rate will get the experimental drug. There will be no comparison group and what that means is that people will feel good that they're, you know, everyone's getting the active drug - but it also means that you'll only be able to tell if these drugs are extremely effective, or if they are obviously dangerous. This approach won't identify drugs that have only a moderate effect.

GREENE: And just in a few seconds we have left - I mean, if one of these drugs is effective could it play a role in bringing this epidemic to an end?

HARRIS: Well, it certainly would help people who are sick there's no question about that, but scientists have long said that what you really need to do is isolate sick patients to stop the disease and that's still what they're saying you need to do to stop Ebola.

GREENE: OK. NPR's Richard Harris. Thanks very much, Richard.

HARRIS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.