For the first time, a drug to treat Ebola is showing promising signs of effectiveness in people participating in a study. The medicine, which interferes with the ability of the virus to copy itself, seems to have halved mortality — to 15 percent from 30 percent — in patients with low to moderate levels of Ebola in their blood, researchers have found. It had no effect in patients with more virus in their blood, who are more likely to die. The drug, called favipiravir, was generally well tolerated.
“The results are encouraging in a certain phase of the disease,” Dr. Sakoba Keita, director of disease control for the Guinean Ministry of Health, said by phone. The drug is being tested in Guinea, one of the three West African countries most affected by the Ebola crisis.
The early findings have not yet been announced, but they raise questions about which patients, if any, outside the study should be offered treatment with the drug.
“These are very difficult, agonizing decisions,” said Susan Ellenberg, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, who was not involved in the research. She cautioned that early results sometimes are not borne out.
The results for the drug are based on an analysis of 69 patients over age 14 who have received it at two sites in Guinea since December. The survival rates of those with low to moderate levels of virus in their blood were significantly better than those of patients previously treated at a center run by Doctors Without Borders in Guéckédou, Guinea.
“With Ebola, there’s precious little good news,” said Dr. Susan Shepherd, who served as medical coordinator at a treatment unit run by the Alliance for International Medical Action, one of two sites where the drug was tested.