CDC director: More study needed of Ebola medicine made in Kentucky

Tobacco plants growing in greenhouses in Owensboro are being used to make the experimental serum to fight Ebola.
Tobacco plants growing in greenhouses in Owensboro are being used to make the experimental serum to fight Ebola. Photo provided

Even if two victims of the deadly Ebola virus recover after being given a medicine derived from genetically modified tobacco, much more study would be needed to confirm whether the drug worked, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.

It would be wonderful if the serum grown from tobacco works, but two patients is far too small a sample to make conclusions about the medicine produced in Owensboro, Dr. Thomas Frieden said Tuesday during an appearance in Hazard.

"You can't conclude anything from how two patients do, other than it's wonderful if they get better," Frieden said.

The serum was produced at Kentucky BioProcessing, which conducts research and development for San Diego-based Mapp Biopharmaceutical, according to a company spokesman.

Two Americans infected with Ebola have been given the drug, called ZMapp, and have shown improvement.

The drug apparently had not been tested on humans, but a federal study published last year showed that 43 percent of infected primates given the drug recovered.

If the two people being given the drug recover, rigorous study of the medicine would be needed "so we'll know, definitively and scientifically, does it help, does it hurt or does it not make any difference at all?" Frieden said.

That's not clear now, he said, noting that there is no proven treatment or vaccine for the disease.

Frieden said the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which has killed more than 600 people, is the worst the world has ever seen.

The CDC will send 50 more staffers to the affected countries within 15 days to help contain the outbreak, Frieden said.

Ebola is spread through contact with the bodily fluids of infected people. Limiting that contact in health-care centers, and changing burial practices in the affected region to limit such contact, will help stem the outbreak, Frieden said.

Frieden said Ebola is not spread as easily as some other infections, such as the common cold, but it's scary because the death rate is high once people contract the disease.

The CDC has said there is little risk of an Ebola outbreak in the United States.

Frieden said authorities and health workers have been able to stop every prior Ebola outbreak, and that he is confident the current outbreak will be contained if the proper measures are used.

But right now, "the problem is still very much not in control," he said.

The two Americans infected are health-care workers who had been in Africa.

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