“I spent four decades of my life thinking how to treat patients with the Ebola virus. So this is the achievement of my life,” Dr Jean-Jacques Muyembe, who with his team of researchers, has discovered a new Ebola treatment that can cure symptoms in just an hour told the BBC.
Four drugs were recently trialled on patients in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Ebola has killed nearly 1,900 people over the past year.
It was discovered that more than 90% of infected people can survive if treated early with the latest experimental drugs.
On Tuesday, two people cured of Ebola using the experimental drugs were released from a treatment centre in Goma, DR Congo, and reunited with their families.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), two other treatments, called ZMapp and Remdesivir, which were used during the massive Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, have been dropped from trials as the new experimental drugs were most effective.
The trial in the DRC, which started in November, has now been stopped while all Ebola treatment units have been asked to use the two experimental or monoclonal antibody drugs.
“From now on, we will no longer say that Ebola is incurable,” said Dr Muyembe, who is also the director general of Congo’s National Institute for Biomedical Research, which has overseen the trial. “These advances will help save thousands of lives.”
In DRC, where there is a major outbreak of the virus – the second biggest ever- the biggest challenges to control the virus include frequent rebel attacks and high mobility of the population. Currently, suspicion of authorities and health agencies are also factors that are hindering efforts to contain the response, according to experts.
Muyembe, who joined scientists recently to announce the trial results, said, news of a cure could change the course of this outbreak.
“Now we can say that 90 percent can come out of treatment cured, they will start believing it and developing trust,” said the 77-year-old, who was part of the team that discovered Ebola 43 years ago. “The first ones to transmit this information will be the patients themselves.”
Dr. Muyembe, who has been referred to as a “true hero,” has been fighting Ebola since it first appeared in the DRC (then Zaire) in 1976.
At age 34, Muyembe was the first virologist ever to see an Ebola patient, and he has helped fight all nine of the outbreaks to strike his country since.
He pioneered the use of survivors’ blood serum — which contains antibodies — in order to save patients. The two experiment treatments that proved successful recently descend in part from his original research, according to The New York Times.
When asked about how he felt about this, he said: “I’m a little sentimental. I had this idea a long time ago, and I’ve waited patiently for it. I’m very happy, and I can’t believe it.”
According to the BBC, the new drugs, named REGN-EB3 and mAb114, work by attacking the Ebola virus with antibodies, neutralising its impact on human cells.
“The drug mAb114 was developed using antibodies harvested from survivors of Ebola while REGN-EB3 comes from antibodies generated within mice infected with the disease,” the report added.
Dr Anthony Fauci, director of NIAID said: “They are the “first drugs that, in a scientifically sound study, have clearly shown a significant diminution in mortality.”
Of the patients given the two experimental drugs in the study, 29% on REGN-EB3 and 34% on mAb114 died. In contrast, 49% on ZMapp and 53% on Remdesivir (the two earlier treatments) died, according to NIAID.
The agency added that the survival rate among patients with low levels of the virus in their blood was as high as 94% when they were given REGN-EB3, and 89% when on mAb114.
In effect, the findings mean that more than 90% of people can survive if they are treated early, according to the team of scientists who worked on the trial.
The team is also hopeful that the deadly Ebola virus may soon become a preventable and treatable disease.
Why Ebola is dangerous
Ebola virus disease (EVD) is a severe, often fatal illness in humans. It is often transmitted from animals to people, and then from people to people by direct contact with infected blood, bodily fluids or organs, or indirectly through contact with contaminated areas.
Formerly known as Ebola haemorrhagic fever, the disease is named after Ebola River in DRC. It was first discovered in 1976.
According to the WHO, the incubation period of the disease is between two and 21 days. Some of the first symptoms include fever fatigue, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. The other symptoms are vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, symptoms of impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding.
People remain infectious as long as their blood contains the virus and it may also persist in different fluids including amniotic and placenta fluids in pregnant women and breast milk in lactating women at the time of infection.