You may have heard about the ‘mystery’ vials that were given to 2 Americans that contracted the Ebola virus. These vials contained an anti-ebola serum called zMapp, an antibody treatment for Ebola that is untested in humans. It has been quite successful in limited primate studies, but is still quite far from being ready for routine human use. One reason for this, is that the serum is made up of 3 monoclonal MOUSE antibodies. Most antibody treatments used in humans are humanized, meaning they are modified to look like they are part of our bodies so that our immune systems don’t recognize them as foreign. When you put a protein or antibody from mouse, or other animal, into humans, our immune systems attack and remove it. Therefore, putting mouse antibodies against Ebola virus into humans will mean that the antibodies can have an impact on the virus for only a short period before our immune system gets rid of them. This makes future treatment with the serum basically useless.
Many people have questioned why this serum was used on 2 Americans when it has not been used on the more than 800 people in Africa who have died during this Ebola outbreak. Even The Onion has taken up this issue in a sarcastic article:
“While all measures are being taken to contain the spread of the contagion, an effective, safe, and reliable Ebola inoculation unfortunately remains roughly 50 to 60 white people away, if not more,” said Tulane University pathologist Gregory Wensmann, adding that while progress has been made over the course of the last two or three white people, a potential Ebola vaccination is still many more white people off.
While the humor in the article rings true, there are many reasons that we are not sending this untested serum all over Africa. I’ll mention a few of the poignant reasons here, while hoping we can also figure out a way to get this treatment or some treatment out fast.
First, it is extremely experimental. As mentioned above, it has never been given to humans.
Second, one factor contributing to the current Ebola outbreak is a mistrust of western medicine and medical workers in affected communities. Using an untested treatment would almost certainly make this situation worse.
Third, although it may seem racist (as pointed out by the Onion article) to only use the serum on Americans, the medical community has sort of a rough history of testing experimental treatments on specific communities, ethnicities, races, countries etc. The last thing the medical research community needs is to look like it is experimenting with an untested treatment on a vulnerable population that has no other options.
There is also the distinct possibility that there is not a real supply of the serum, since it is so early in development. Hopefully the serum will prove effective in the cases of the Americans and can be fast-tracked or somehow used compassionately in Africa as well, but there are many reasons this may not happen in the immediate future.