U.S. federal officials are planning to sharply increase production of ZMapp, which is viewed by many experts as the most promising experimental drug for treating people stricken by Ebola in West Africa.
The Department of Health and Human Services is in advanced discussions to enlist Caliber Biotherapeutics, a Texas company that can produce the drug in millions of tobacco plants, according to federal officials and pharmaceutical industry executives.
Federal officials, along with two of the world’s biggest charities — the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust — are also looking at arranging for production of ZMapp in animal cells. While that will take longer, it would allow for greater output.
Despite the new efforts, supplies of the drug are expected to be limited to hundreds or thousands of treatment courses by early next year, which would not be nearly enough if the epidemic continues to spiral out of control.
"The biology just doesn’t allow you to do it tomorrow,” said Alan Magill, who heads the malaria program at the Gates Foundation and is trying to arrange for more ZMapp production.
Experts say it is impossible to say how well ZMapp works based on its limited use so far. And there are other experimental drugs that have shown promise in animal testing, and production of those might also be increased. But for now, ZMapp may offer the best shot because it consists of proteins called monoclonal antibodies, widely used as drugs in the biotechnology industry, which latch onto the virus and neutralize it.
ZMapp, which is actually a cocktail of three different antibodies, is being developed by Mapp Biopharmaceutical, a tiny San Diego company, with funding from the U.S. and Canadian governments.
The doses used to treat the American aid workers were produced in tobacco leaves at a facility in Owensboro, Kentucky, that is owned by Reynolds American, the tobacco company. That facility has now resumed production but the federal official said it is only expected to produce about 10 to 20 treatment courses by the end of the year, and the same amount every month going forward.
So the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services, is considering additional production from Caliber, which is based in Bryan, Texas, and co-operates on projects with Texas A&M University. No official contract has been signed so plans could still change.