New research has show that antiretroviral medications targeting HIV may work on Ebola too. The findings were presented earlier this month at the annual conference of the Canadian Association for HIV Research but have been dismissed by some critics for being based on laboratory experiments.
If the drugs work as well in humans it would completely revolutionize the fight against Ebola, especially since the HIV drugs are relatively cheap and already available in West Africa where more than 10,000 people died in the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
"If it works out, we'll be doing somersaults — if I knew how to do one — down the hallways," one of the researchers told CNN. Dr. Donald Branch, an associate professor in the department of laboratory medicine and pathobiology at the University of Toronto said the team decided to do the experiments after reading about Dr. Gorbee Logan, a Liberian physician who reportedly treated 15 Ebola patients with lamivudine. Remarkably — considering the 70 percent death rate of the outbreak —13 of the patients survived.
The University of Toronto examined the possibility of using HIV medications to fight Ebola with lab tests using the nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor medications lamivudine, AZT, and the gel version of tenofovir (brand name Viread). They discovered that each of the three drugs were effective in fighting Ebola by themselves. But when combined together they were most effective, succeeding in reducing rate of replication by 88 percent.
"When I saw the results, I asked one of my colleagues to take a picture, because I thought, 'We just made history'," said Stephen McCarthy, one of Branch's doctoral students.
He discounts the University of Toronto experiments because the researchers didn't use the actual Ebola virus—which they were prohibited from using because it could have put researchers at risk of catching (and spreading) the deadly disease. Instead the Canadian study used a strain modified so it can't infect humans.
"It would be important to repeat them with live Ebola virus under the appropriate BSL-4 conditions," Fauci said, referring to studies done in Biosafety Level 4 labs, where work with the actual virus is allowed. The University of Toronto researchers say they hope to gain access to a Biosafety Level 4 lab soon.
NIH researchers have themselves experimented with one of the three drugs in the Canadian study, lamivudine, and they came to the conclusion that it didn’t work, confirming a study they'd done before.
Now the Canadians are reportedly questioning NIH's methods, saying the scientists didn't expose the Ebola virus with the drug long enough.
Meanwhile CNN reported that Tarik Jasarevic, a World Health Organization spokesman, dismissed the virus used at the University of Toronto, calling it "artificial" and saying there was "little correlation" between their results and the results achieved when using a live virus.
In fact, the official World Health Organization position is that lamivudine "has no antiviral activity against [the Ebola virus] and should therefore not be administered for the treatment of Ebola."
The international organization is studying the impact of several drugs on Ebola in clinical trials. None of them are HIV medications. Nor are they generics. Which, as CNN points out, means the medications wouldn’t be as cheap or accessible to doctors in Africa as some HIV meds are.
In the Canadian study, two of the three HIV drugs were generics, and the third, tenofovir, is expected to be available as a generic by the end of 2017.