Ebola Virus Disease Electron Micrograph

Why Can’t We Have More ‘Magic’ Blood for Ebola?

The World Health Organization complains that there is a black market for blood in some parts of West Africa affected by Ebola.

Serum, which is blood with the red blood cells removed, contains the antibodies that fight all sorts of attackers, such as viruses and bacteria. If someone’s recently recovered from an infection, they’ll usually have loads of antibodies that specifically recognize whatever caused the infection.

“This is pretty darn good.”

The same is true with Ebola. But serum, just like whole blood, also carries blood type — A, O, B and AB. And just as with whole blood, giving someone serum of the wrong blood type can cause a serious and often deadly reaction.

Is there a way to make a “universal” donor? Is there some way to make blood that doesn’t react with anyone’s blood?

That’s what the makers of the experimental drug ZMapp are trying to do. ZMapp is made using three of the antibodies that specifically target Ebola. It’s been tried in seven people. No one knows if it helped — you need to test a drug in many people to know the answer.

But in tests in monkeys, it’s been shown to work well, and it rescues even monkeys that are already sick. “This is pretty darn good,” Peter Jahrling, an expert in drugs and vaccines at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a symposium on Ebola on Tuesday.

“ZMapp, ramped up, in my opinion, is the treatment of choice.”

And that’s a better record than using serum has. No one knows if using convalescent serum helps, and tests on monkeys suggest that using serum does not help them survive Ebola infection. Plus it’s dangerous to use serum in the field, says Jahrling.

ZMapp, made by California-based Mapp Biopharmaceutical, may be the scarcest drug in the world right now. There are no doses available. Two of the antibodies are made using close relatives of the tobacco plant, and a third is made in Canada. It’s a process that takes time, and before the epidemic started in West Africa, there was no real rush to develop it.

“ZMapp, ramped up, in my opinion, is the treatment of choice,” Jahrling told the symposium held at Johns Hopkins University.

First published October 14 2014, 9:43 AM


Maggie Fox

Maggie Fox is senior health writer for NBCNews.com and TODAY.com, writing top news on health policy, medical treatments and disease.

She’s a former managing editor for healthcare and technology at National Journal and global health and science editor for Reuters based in Washington, D.C. and London.

She’s reported for news agencies, radio, newspapers, magazines and television from across Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe covering news ranging from war to politics and, of course, health and science. Her reporting has taken Maggie to Lebanon, Syria and Libya; to China, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Pakistan; to Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia and to Ireland and Northern Ireland and across the rest of Europe.

Maggie has won awards from the Society of Business Editors and Writers, the National Immunization Program, the Overseas Press Club and other organizations. She’s done fellowships at Harvard Medical School, the National Institutes of Health and the University of Maryland.

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