ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Ebola continues to spread, with Senegal confirming its first case today. At the same time, scientists are reporting the first strong evidence that a drug may be effective for fighting the disease. It's known as ZMapp. As we hear from NPR's Rob Stein, it's been found to save infected monkeys.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Even though doctors have given ZMapp to a handful of victims of the current outbreak, the drug had never been tested in people or even in monkeys. That's why the new study is so important. It's the first time anyone's actually tried it on any animal that's a close relative to people.
GARY KOBINGER: It's a very important step forward in the fight against Ebola virus.
STEIN: That's Gary Kobinger of the Global Health Agency of Canada. He led the new study. The researchers infected 18 monkeys with the Ebola virus and injected the animals with ZMapp to see if the drug would save them. Every single monkey - a 100 percent - survived. And that's even though some of the animals didn't get the drug until five days after they were infected and were already sick.
KOBINGER: What's quite remarkable is that we could rescue some of the animals that had advanced disease. And what's advanced disease is the animal that is just a few days from the end - just a few hours.
STEIN: Now the question is whether ZMapp would work as well in people. The short answer? No one knows. But Kobinger and others say, this at least suggests it might.
KOBINGER: I think it strongly supports that concept.
STEIN: Two American missionaries who got ZMapp survived. But at least two other people who got ZMapp - a Spanish priest and a Liberian doctor - ended up dying anyway. So Thomas Geisbert of the University of Texas says, it's hard to know what to think from those cases.
THOMAS GEISBERT: I don't know that we can really draw any conclusions from that one way or the other.
STEIN: That's why Geisbert says, the new study is so important.
GEISBERT: I think the results are monumental in the sense that this study demonstrates the potential - the strong potential - that this would have utility in treating human cases in a situation that's realistic, where somebody starts to show symptoms.
STEIN: Even if it does work in people, the next problem is making sure it's safe. So scientists are racing to start another study that would give ZMapp to a small number of people to see. And then there's another big question - how to get more ZMapp, fast. The California company that makes the drug says, it gave away every dose it had. And Robin Robinson, a U.S. government official trying to figure out how to get more, says, it takes months to make small amounts.
ROBIN ROBINSON: This is a product in very early development, and they're just learning how to make this product at this time. So we're talking about tens of doses, as opposed to hundreds or thousands of doses.
STEIN: ZMapp's a cocktail of three kinds of proteins known as monoclonal antibodies. And right now, they're produced by genetically engineered tobacco plants. It's a slow process to grow the plants, genetically engineer them to make the antibodies and process the cocktail. But the government is trying to figure out if there's a way to speed all that up.
ROBINSON: We're moving as fast as we can break. That is, we can accelerate what would normally take a number of years into months. And we're not going to leave any stone unturned at this point.
STEIN: Officials are exploring whether they can enlist more companies with experience using tobacco plants as drug factories and even possibly make ZMapp using animal cells, which could be a lot faster. But Robinson stresses it's way too soon to know how quickly any of this might happen might happen. Rob Stein, NPR News.
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