DAVID GREENE, host:
The�Ebola virus�might be the world's deadliest microbe. It kills up to 90 percent of those it infects. Essentially, people bleed to death. And so scientists are pleased that an experimental drug completely protects laboratory monkeys from Ebola, suggesting that humans may benefit, too. NPR's Richard Knox has our story.
RICHARD KNOX: Nobody respects Ebola more than the researchers who work with it. They wear moon suits and work in maximum security laboratories. Every now and then, one of them gets accidentally infected, and some of them have died.
Virus expert Heinz Feldmann of the National Institutes of Health remembers one case. About a year ago, a lab worker in Germany accidently stuck herself with a syringe containing Ebola virus. Within 40 hours, the woman got an experimental vaccine that Feldmann helped develop.
Dr. HEINZ FELDMANN (Virus Expert, National Institutes of Health): It was kind of a shot in the dark, but if it would've been me I would've taken it, as well.
KNOX: The woman lived, but no one knows if it was because of the vaccine. In earlier experiments, only half the monkeys that got it after they'd been exposed to Ebola survived. Or it may be she just didn't get infected in the first place.
The new Ebola treatment reported in this week's issue of The Lancet is not a vaccine. It doesn't stir up the immune system against Ebola. It attacks the virus directly. The drug contains snippets of three of the virus' seven genes packaged into microscopic capsules. These gene fragments gum up the virus's machinery for making more viruses.
A team led by�Thomas Geisbert�of Boston University developed the drug with a Canadian biotech company. Geisbert's been working with Ebola and other so-called hemorrhagic fevers for a long time. He's used to small victories and big setbacks. So he wasn't prepared to see something that was 100 percent effective.
Dr. THOMAS GEISBERT (Boston University): We were stunned. I mean we - you know, I've been working with this virus for my whole career, 23, 24 years, and we've had some mild successes where maybe we could go up to 50 percent protection. But I was really shocked that we got complete protection.
KNOX: The scientists injected monkeys with Ebola in doses 30,000 times higher than needed to kill them. Thirty minutes later, they injected the new drug, then gave shots of it for six more days. The animals that got the drug all lived. The others all died.
But in the real world, people infected with Ebola might not get the drug within 30 minutes like these monkeys did. So Geisbert's planning another set of experiments.
Dr. GEISBERT: Can we go 24 hours or 48 hours or 72 hours before we start treatment? Can we increase the window and still achieve 100 percent protection?
KNOX: If these experiments pan out, the new drug could be a lifesaver for people in Ebola outbreaks in Africa and for lab workers who get infected accidentally. And it could be important if terrorists somehow get hold of Ebola and use it as a weapon.
Feldmann says the new drug opens up possibilities that go beyond Ebola.
Dr. FELDMANN: I think it's a milestone in treatment for Ebola, and not just Ebola. I think this will mostly likely also work for other related viral hemorrhagic fevers.
KNOX: Infections such as Marburg, Lassa and Crimean-Congo fevers, which cause deadly outbreaks in Africa and elsewhere. And more labs are working with these viruses these days.
Dr. FELDMANN: You don't have to be extremely smart to predict that as more people work with this, the bigger the chances that incidents and accidents are happening to laboratory workers.
KNOX: But Feldmann worries that nobody will care enough to invest the millions it will take to bring treatments for these rare but dangerous viruses to market.
Richard Knox, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
GREENE: This is NPR News.