Thank this Ebola-fighting African doctor for monoclonal antibody treatments

October 21, 2020

As President Trump recovers from Covid-19, he has been singing the praises of an experimental monoclonal antibody cocktail made by Regeneron, which he credits for his fast recovery.

He’s not alone in his optimism. Some infectious disease experts anticipate that monoclonal antibody treatments will become a significant tool in controlling the pandemic, potentially as valuable as a vaccine.

But the credit for this promising breakthrough should not go to Western biomedical research alone. In fact, we have Ebola — and Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum, the intrepid African scientist known as the “Ebola hunter” — to thank for revealing the promise of these therapies.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration this week approved an antibody cocktail made by Regeneron to treat Ebola, the first therapy approved for the virus. The treatment was one of two Regeneron antibody therapies that showed lifesaving potential in clinical trials last year, significantly increasing the chances of survival for people with Ebola, which kills between 25% and 90% of those infected with the virus. Some people in the trial also received remdesivir, an antiviral treatment that was also given to the president.

Muyembe-Tamfum, who directs the National Institute of Biomedical Research in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is one of the pivotal figures in making monoclonal antibodies possible. The French-speaking microbiologist was on the team that investigated the first Ebola outbreak in 1976. In 1995, after a medical team in the DRC transfused Ebola patients with blood donated by those who had recovered from Ebola disease, he led one of the first studies of convalescent antibodies, partnering with the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine and Swiss laboratories to isolate a monoclonal antibody capable of curing infected monkeys.


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