EBOLA VIRUS KILLS QUICKLY. It hails from a family of hemorrhagic fevers that trigger massive internal bleeding. Seven years ago, during an outbreak in Africa, doctors stumbled on a possible cure. Part of the idea came from a group of Russian virologists who had worked for years on even more malignant strains of the virus. They were searching for the perfect biological weapon when they realized that the reason some people survived Ebola was the ability of their immune systems to generate antibodies to the bug.
Doctors from the World Health Organization put the broader theory to work in the summer of 1995, when 300 cases of Ebola surfaced in Zaire. Virologists isolated the immune particles from the blood of survivors and infused them into dying victims. Seven of the eight people who received the cocktail survived. Now a California biotechnology company, Abgenix, is working with a branch of the U.S. Army to fabricate these antibodies on a large scale in the hopes of mass-producing a cure.
Our modern war footing is riding on the success of efforts like this. Ebola is on the short list of bioagents believed to be the preferred weapons of would-be terrorists, along with such deadly germs as smallpox, anthrax, and botulism. The expanded list includes about three dozen bugs. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to vaccinate even front-line troops against all these potential weapons. There's only one alternative: Doctors need stockpiles of off-the-shelf antidotes.
With that end in mind, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have been sprinkling grants on researchers with relevant technology. But most of these are earmarked for basic research aimed at proving concepts rather than producing antidotes and vaccines. The grants Abgenix got from the Army are small potatoes compared with the ventures the company pursues with its private partners. The government funding may leave us with some interesting scientific ideas, but it is woefully insufficient for producing and stockpiling drugs that can be deployed in the event of an attack.
The federal grants going directly to private biotechnology companies are also allocated for just one- or two-year increments. Typically, drug development requires cycles of five or more years. The private capital that's comfortable funding these long-term ventures isn't interested in companies working on bioterrorism. "Venture capitalists don't count that as a commercial opportunity" says George Painter, president and chief executive officer of Chimerix, a San Diego-based biotechnology start-up that is developing an oral formulation of an intravenous drug called Cidofovir. The drug is believed to be an effective treatment for smallpox, and a pill form would be a valuable addition to national biodefense stockpiles. But Chimerix has had a hard time attracting capital to fund its endeavor. "When you work on bioterrorism, you're put in a different box. . . . It leaves you in limbo and puts your investors at risk," Painter says.
This is something that the New Jersey-based biotechnology company EluSys Therapeutics has also learned as it develops antibodies that could neutralize the deadly toxin that anthrax infection produces. These antibodies are being engineered to bind the anthrax toxin and could presumably be used for pre- and post-exposure--as prophylactic remedies or as treatments for active infection. The anthrax toxin causes its victims to suffer widespread inflammation and organ damage. To combat a wide-scale attack, doctors need a drug that could neutralize the toxin while it courses through a victim's blood. During the mail attacks last year, five of the eleven victims who reached the late stages of anthrax infection died despite the fact that they were treated with the antibiotic Cipro. The bacteria had already released an ample load of toxin.
None of these drugs will be available in the event Iraq unleashes bioweapons on American troops, and at current funding levels, none will be ready even in the next few years. Right now serious money from private investors wants no part of bioterrorism. There's no guarantee that companies will be able to sell successful products to the government, or that they'll be permitted to charge a fair price. There's also the possibility that companies will toil for five years to develop a countermeasure to one threat, while federal agencies will have already moved on to other worries. EluSys, for instance, recently received a grant for $2.8 million from the Army to accelerate the development of its antibody technology against anthrax toxin. But by most industry estimates, taking a complicated drug through preclinical development and getting it to the point where it can be tested in people can take $50 to $100 million.