Mapp Bio Steps onto Global Stage as Ebola “Hot Zone” Gets Hotter

8/29/14Follow @bvbigelow

The “hot zone” in West Africa that has become the worst Ebola outbreak in history is now a full-blown global health crisis—and it is expected to continue into 2015.

That is the consensus of three Ebola experts who, speaking at a public forum in San Diego, joined a growing number of world health officials in warning that the thousands of known and suspected Ebola cases may be just the beginning in a protracted battle to bring the letal viral contagion under control.

The forum, held in a lobby of The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) Wednesday, included a rare public appearance by Kevin Whaley, CEO of Mapp Biopharmaceutical, the tiny San Diego biotech that developed ZMapp, the experimental anti-viral drug given to American missionaries Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, as well as a Spanish priest and three African healthcare workers—who were all stricken with Ebola. One of the African healthcare workers, Dr. Abraham Borbo of Liberia, and the Rev. Miguel Pajares of Madrid, nevertheless succumbed to the disease.

Whaley, who has avoided the celebratory publicity surrounding ZMapp, said he and co-founder Larry Zeitlin “both came out of the school of public health at Johns Hopkins,” and founded Mapp Bio in 2003 to serve the “unmet needs in global health.” The company has only nine employees and is focused primarily on the health needs of mothers and children in “under-funded and under-appreciated” places like West Africa.

Kevin Whaley

Kevin Whaley

The unassuming Whaley declined to say much about his feelings after Brantly and Writebol walked out of the Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, where they were hospitalized after receiving the first doses of ZMapp ever administered to humans. While the experience was “certainly very satisfying,” Whaley said ZMapp was not given in a way that could yield any scientifically validated data or conclusions. “Any skeptical scientist would have to say there is no way to know” whether the drug contributed to the four survivors’ recovery, he said.

With all available samples of ZMapp now exhausted, Whaley said Mapp Bio is looking for major help from the federal government to make more.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization said Thursday the Ebola outbreak could infect more than 20,000 people before it is over. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told CNN Wednesday that the situation in Liberia is worse than he expected. Because Ebola symptoms can take weeks to develop, Frieden said the risk of exporting Ebola to another country increases every day the outbreak goes on.

Health authorities have counted 1,552 deaths in at least 3,069 suspected or confirmed Ebola cases since the outbreak began at the beginning of this year, according to an update posted on the CDC website Thursday. The disease has spread to four countries in West Africa: Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, and Nigeria. As the crisis mounts, the U.S. and U.K. are finally moving to test a new Ebola vaccine for the first time in … Next Page »

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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