The Democratic Republic of Congo said Wednesday it has approved the use of five experimental Ebola treatments on patients suffering from the hemorrhagic fever, as drug companies and health workers scramble to use the current outbreak to help find a cure for the deadly virus.
The unlicensed drugs will be administered under research protocols at makeshift treatment centers in the remote Equateur Province, where an Ebola outbreak has killed 27 people since April, said Jessica Ilunga, a spokeswoman for Congo’s public-health ministry. So far, the ministry has confirmed 37 cases of the virus, with an additional 21 probable or suspected cases.
The experimental treatments—only two of which have been tested in humans—could bring another major change to the world’s response to Ebola, which killed more than 11,300 people across West Africa between 2014 and 2016 and is deadly for one in two people who catch it.
Some 1,112 Congolese who had been in contact with confirmed Ebola patients in the current outbreak have already received an experimental vaccine that was shown to prevent new infections in Guinea in 2015.
A health care worker takes the temperatures of passengers at Ngobila Beach in Kinshasa, on May 24, 2018. Photo: JOHN BOMPENGO/ASSOCIATED PRESS
The World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders hope that the vaccination drive will further slow the spread of the virus. No new Ebola cases have been reported in Mbandaka, a city of 1.2 million people and major transport hub on the Congo River. Four confirmed patients there had triggered fears that the virus could move to other parts of Congo, including the capital Kinshasa, and neighboring countries.
Administering the experimental treatments is set to be more challenging than giving the vaccine—especially in the remote villages that are the epicenter of the current outbreak. Some of the drugs require hourslong transfusions or daily lab checks that will be difficult to put in place in an environment with no reliable power or clean water.
The WHO said the medications will be administered as compassionate treatment for patients, while measuring which one is more effective.
“Clinicians working in the treatment centers will make decisions on which drug to use as deemed helpful for their patients,” said Tarik Jašarević, a WHO spokesman. “The treatments can be used as long as informed consent is obtained from patients … with close monitoring and reporting of any adverse events.”
Four of the five drugs are already in Congo and will be shipped to Equateur Province later this week, the health ministry said.
One of them, ZMapp, which was developed by U.S.-based Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc., was tested in a clinical trial in the waning months of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. The trial suggested that ZMapp reduced the mortality rate for Ebola, but there were too few patients at that point to draw a definitive conclusion about its effectiveness.
The WHO said Tuesday that the risk of Ebola spreading to other parts of Congo remains very high, although its global threat remains low.
“We are cautiously optimistic, but there are still remote areas affected, where we are not able to say confidently that we have the full picture,” Mr. Jašarević said.
—Gabriele Steinhauser contributed to this article.
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