WASHINGTON – As the health of two Ebola-stricken American missionaries deteriorated late last month, an international relief organization backing them hunted for a medical miracle. The clock was ticking, and a sobering fact remained: Most people battling the disease do not survive.
Leaders at Samaritan’s Purse, a North Carolina-based Christian humanitarian group, asked officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention whether any treatment existed – tested or untested – that might help save the lives of Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, both of whom had contracted Ebola while helping patients in Liberia.
The CDC put the group in touch with National Institutes of Health workers in West Africa, where an employee knew about promising research the U.S. government had funded on a serum that had been tested only in monkeys.
Our staff in Liberia knew about the research and flagged it for the religious groups, said Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Within days, doses of the unproven treatment made their way in frozen vials across the ocean and were administered to Brantly and Writebol.
This so-called experimental serum is a cocktail of antibodies that have the capability of blocking the virus, Fauci said, adding, The physicians in charge of the patients’ care made a risk-benefit decision. The risk was less than the potential benefit.
While it is too early to say whether the treatment saved the lives of the two missionaries or slowed the disease’s progression enough to allow them to return to the United States for care, some reports have suggested that Brantly and Writebol improved after getting the serum.
Both Samaritan’s Purse and CDC Director Tom Frieden have described Brantly’s condition as improving.
Palmer Holt, a spokesman for SIM, or Service in Mission, a Christian relief group that employs Writebol and her husband, said Writebol has had good days and bad days. But he added that while her condition was worsening Wednesday, the day before she first received the treatment, she seemed to stabilize in the days that followed.
Holt said that Writebol, who is scheduled to arrive at Emory University Hospital today, has received a second dose of the serum, with encouraging results.
She’s showing improvement, he said in an email Monday. She is walking with assistance.
There is no approved cure for Ebola and no proven vaccine to prevent the disease. Part of the problem, beyond the difficulty in developing reliable treatments, has been a lack of interest from drug companies, given that Ebola has affected relatively few people compared with many other diseases.