Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Why Did Two U.S. Missionaries Get an Ebola Serum While Africans Are Left to Die?


In mid-July, Mapp Biopharmaceuticals, a small, privately held biotech firm based in San Diego, inked a deal to finalize the commercialization of an experimental drug known as ZMapp, a cocktail of three lab-created antibodies that, when combined, can do what no antibody—naturally occurring or otherwise—had been proven to do just several years ago: neutralize the Ebola virus.

Before this week, the drug was narrowly known, mostly by industry watchers and researchers. That changed on Monday, when it was reported that ZMapp had been given to Kent Brantly, a missionary doctor from Texas who contracted Ebola while working at ELWA hospital, in Monrovia, Liberia. According to CNN, "Brantly was able to walk into Emory University Hospital in Atlanta after being evacuated to the United States last week." Nancy Writebol, a missionary who worked in the same hospital, reportedly was also given ZMapp and arrived in Atlanta on Tuesday. Prior to these doses, the drug had never been tested in human subjects.

The inequality in care couldn't be starker. When a doctor and aid worker from the United States are stricken with a horrific disease, an erstwhile unknown cure is sent from freezers at the National Institutes of Health in suburban Washington, D.C., to a hospital on the other side of the world, and a Gulfstream jet outfitted for medevac is arranged to deliver them to one of the world’s premier medical centers. But when two Liberian nurses working at the same hospital are stricken with the same disease, they are treated with the standard of care that other affected Africans—those lucky enough to receive any medical attention at all—have been afforded for the past seven months: saline infusions and electrolytes to keep them hydrated.

 This year’s outbreak has now claimed close to 900 lives, all but one occurring in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Until this outbreak, only 1,500 deaths had been attributed to Ebola over the past 37 years.

The Obama administration has not said whether it will allow ZMapp to go into production. Mapp Biopharmaceuticals published a statement to their website late Monday stating that the company is working “with appropriate government agencies to increase production as quickly as possible.” (An executive at BioProcessing, a Kentucky firm that produces at least one component of ZMapp, told an industry publication last August that his company can produce the proteins for ZMapp in two weeks.)

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