When Charles Arntzen suggested using tobacco to fight Ebola back in 2002, people thought he was crazy. Now, drug developers are racing to produce more doses of ZMapp. Arntzen’s serum is widely credited with saving the lives of two American aid workers. That's not enough for doctors to say the drug works, but with no federally approved treatments, no vaccines and an expanding crisis, many experts say ZMapp is the most promising weapon yet in the battle against Ebola.
ZMapp was born after 9/11 when the U.S. Army began funding projects to protect Americans from potential bioterrorism attacks. Arntzen and a partner with Mapp Biopharmaceuticals began testing the capacity of tobacco plants to produce vaccines and antibodies for Ebola, considered a top-level threat. Developers infected mice with the Ebola virus, and then fused the genes. That genetically-engineered virus was then injected into tobacco plants, which got sick and produced antibodies. Those antibodies — separated and scrubbed — are ZMapp.
“Tobacco plants very readily replicate quickly, and so it’s almost like this tobacco plant is a ready-made pharmaceutical manufacturing system that works better than any other plant species we’ve tried,” Arntzen said.
In the first TV interview in his lab at the Biodesign Institute of Arizona State University, Arntzen told “America Tonight” about ZMapp’s capacity to curb the epidemic, how much faith he has in his drug and where we'll be a year from now in the battle to contain Ebola. The following questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Michael Okwu: What was the initial reaction from scientists, the feds and the pharmaceutical industry when you suggested that the root to fighting Ebola might lie in, of all things, a tobacco plant?
Charles Arntzen: When we were proposing this back in 2002, lots of people thought it as a crazy idea. "This is tobacco, this is a terrible plant that people smoke," and all sorts of bad things about it.
Your drug is widely credited for saving the lives of two American aid workers and three others. What was your reaction to that?
The first thing I did was run in and show my wife the website, and I said, "You know, we started this." To see some fundamental discovery actually reach the point that you can say, "Yes, this had an effect on human health," and even more dramatically, saved a life — there aren’t many of who get that experience, where you can draw a straight line from discovery to success.
It’s the holy grail in the field of research.
It’s wonderful, absolutely wonderful.
When will there be more ZMapp out on the market? What are the roadblocks to getting it out?
We really thought we had about two more years to build everything up, expand facilities, etc., before we'd actually get to human testing. And I don't think anybody in their wildest imagination thought that we would need thousands of doses. This outbreak in West Africa was totally unanticipated. So now everything is going full tilt – more equipment, train more people, expand the facilities, go as fast as you can. If we have 1,000 new doses by year’s end, I think we will be fortunate.
Enough to take care of the problem in the short term?
I can see no way in which there’ll be enough ZMapp in maybe even the next 12 months to treat all the Africans who are coming down with the disease. It's terrible. It's unfortunate, but I think it's the truth. There's no way you can start from nothing and create a manufacturing system so quickly.
Do you believe there might be enough ZMapp for Americans who contract Ebola?
If we adopt the proper safety containment plans that are being implemented in the U.S., the number of Ebola patients is going to be small and I think there will be enough ZMapp if it's decided that the ZMapp which is manufactured is first made available here.
Is ZMapp the answer to this crisis?
ZMapp is one component. We need vaccines against Ebola. There's a lot of testing of new vaccines under way right now. They've shown success in monkeys but we know from vaccine work [that] what you see in a monkey doesn't necessarily always work in people. There [are] antiviral drugs that are being tested. Again, are they going to work? We can be hopeful but at the present time, I’d say the only certainty that we have is ZMapp.
Can we say ZMapp conclusively worked in those cases? How do we know that those people didn't survive because they were simply treated earlier? There wasn't some other medical intervention that helped them survive?
From a purely scientific standpoint, we haven't done the controlled experiment with ZMapp. It will be done with more work with monkeys as the surrogate model for humans but in the meantime you ask me as an individual. I'd say this only makes sense. What we're seeing with people is exactly what was seen with the monkeys in preclinical experiments. So, as an individual – not speaking with my scientist hat on – I’m 99 percent certain ZMapp is an effective drug.
What does the situation look like, in your view, a year from now in terms of a vaccine, in terms of additional treatments to ZMapp that might help potential victims out there both in Africa and here in the United States?
I think if we take a timeframe of one year, things look very much more optimistic. You can see all the aid coming in right now to West Africa just to build treatment facilities. We are going to be testing new drugs, and vaccines will come along eventually, hopefully in a year. I'm very hopeful that a year from now we'll look back and say this has been a global response to a terrible epidemic and we're getting it under control.
We'll still be talking about it?
I think we'll still probably be talking about Ebola in a year.