How Close is an Ebola Cure?

As Ebola continues to count victims in West Africa, only three drug companies are pursuing reliable treatments or cures. The virus, which leads to horrific bleeding, clotting, and eventual death, is one of the worst to hit humans, but the scale of its damage is apparently considered too small—just over 1,000 people killed by the virus since March—for the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies to commit millions in research the way they have for AIDS or Hepatitis B. Still, several Western governments are subsidizing vaccine research. There are a few ideas, from custom-made antibodies that can fight the disease to a vaccine that can be injected after contact to help treat, rather than prevent, the virus spreading.

Preventing Ebola is a little like using a bow and arrow to shoot at a honeybee. Ebola changes slightly over time in each victim and the virus is unfazed by traditional antibacterials. That means that there are actually several varieties of Ebola in current human hosts, all of whom may need to be treated differently, if treatment is even possible.

Yet a big challenge tends to bring out big ideas, and at least one holds promise. A drug named BCX4430 that attacks an enzyme found in Ebola and other viruses is being developed; a soft release may happen as early as next year. Considering the high price tag and lengthy trials on animals and then humans, it’s unusual that BCX is being developed by a small company called BioCryst Pharmaceuticals in Frederick, Maryland. A drug that wouldn’t have passed the financial feasibility bar at a major company hold lots of promise for BioCryst, primarily because the world’s biggest customer, the U.S. government, has promised to build a stockpile of an effective drug in anticipation of future outbreaks.

The world of Ebola is mysterious and fascinating with sadly little possibility of disappearing in our lifetimes, even when the latest outbreak is eventually controlled. For more on the frightening realities of Ebola—and specifically what makes it so deadly—I highly recommend The Hot Zone, journalist Richard Preston’s riveting 1994 nonfiction thriller on Ebola’s origin, and the terrifying way it arrived in the U.S. I won’t spoil the book, even though it’s clear how the last episode ended. Consider it a primer to get up to speed. The eventual next chapter that Preston never wrote is the one playing out now.