Antibodies Cure Ebola

The Ebola vaccine was an enormous advance, but it only works before infection. Two antibody therapies – ZMapp and remdesivir — cut the death rate by a factor of two or three when given soon after infection, but 1/4 to 1/3 of patients still died. Now two new monoclonal antibodies cut the death rate to around 10% when given soon after infection. New York Times, 8/12/19.

This is an absolute game changer. Not only will it cure many more people, but it will afford an incentive for people who may have been exposed to come in for treatment instead of shunning clinics as death traps. Even in the dangerous conflict zone of the current epidemic this may tip the balance in favor of humanity. It also points the way for development of similar treatments for related diseases such as Marburg.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the individuals and companies who have doggedly pursued the antibody approach.

Update 8/22/19: An article in the LA Times points out that it’s premature to call the new treatments a “cure” since 10% of patients die even when treated early, and survivors are often still impaired. I considered raising this point in my original article but decided that the positive impact of using the somewhat exaggerated term outweighed the risk of creating unsupportable expectations. As I point out, as does the LA Times article, getting people to treatment centers early is critical for their survival prospects as well as for quelling outbreaks. Saving 90% from a disease that kills 70% of untreated patients is a worthy goal even though the remaining deaths are still tragic, and might disillusion some who relied on the term “cure” without reading the fine print.

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