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Stupid and Irresponsible ZMapp Conspiracy Theories

I’ve written a couple of times about ZMapp, the monoclonal antibody treatment for ebola infection.  Short summary: ZMapp is a cocktail of three monoclonal antibodies, in other words, human proteins, that were genetically engineered to grow in tobacco plants.  Yes, it sounds like FrankenPharma but it’s perfectly normal to do it this way.  ZMapp is produced by company in San Diego.  In it’s PR blurb from January of this year, the company producing it, known as Mapp Biopharmaceuticals, indicated that they had tested ZMapp in 7 primates, 4 of which died.  If you are assuming that all primates will die of ebola, that’s not too bad but in the current outbreak, the lethality is about 60% so this result is nothing to write home about. (note that the in the Business Insider article linked below, the company claims to have improved their success rate in primates but there’s still no proof that it works in humans.)  In other words, the public is grasping at this very early research as if it were the holy grail and it’s not.  The best thing about ZMapp is that it draws attention to the fact that our research for infectious diseases is woefully underfunded.

In any case, Mapp is all out of ZMapp.  Business Insider has some info about what’s going on, which gems nicely with what I’ve been saying:

And scientists acknowledge that despite the new efforts, they may not be able to produce more than a few hundred treatment courses by early next spring. That will be far behind the international demand and will confront officials with life-and-death challenges of rationing and priorities.

“The biology just doesn’t allow you to do it tomorrow,” Alan Magill, a programme director at the Gates Foundation which is helping to organise ZMapp development, told The New York Times .

[…]

The doses with which the US aid workers were treated were manufactured from biologically-engineered tobacco leaves grown at a facility in Kentucky, but it only has extremely limited production capacity.

Officials with the Department of Health and Human Services are now in advanced talks with a Texas company that could produce the drug in millions of tobacco plants.

The New York Times also reported that the US government and two of the world’s biggest charities — the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust – are in talks to arrange for production of ZMapp in animal cells. That is a more conventional production method in the biotechnology industry and could allow for greater overall production, but the initial stages of development will take longer. “We’re going with multiple manufacturers,” a federal official said,

BusinessWeek has reported on the delays in federal bureaucracy that held up research of the drug for up to four years.

“That’s why we don’t have an Ebola countermeasure,” said Robert Kadlec, a consultant and public health physician who held high-level posts in biodefence in the Bush administration. “We failed to invest enough dollars to have it mature.”

Part of that failure to invest might have something to do with Republican assholes writing Op/Eds in the NYTimes claiming that you’re washed up as a scientist after the age of 36 , which is about 4 years after you finish your last starvation diet salaried post-doc.  After that age, you don’t deserve the limited funding from NIH grants as some young whippersnapper who has just started his career (and has about 4 years to make his name in the world before it’s all over).  Funny, I started feeling my mental cheerios about two years before I was laid off.  Whatever.  Ahhh, Republicans, always expecting to get some new major breakthrough from hard working intelligent people without spending any money at all.  Typical. I’m going to address that idiotic Op/Ed at a later time, once my blood pressure has returned to normal.

Like I said yesterday, if production of ZMapp is really that crucial, the government or the Gates Foundation can hire a couple thousand currently unemployed, laid off American pharma researchers who used to do protein production.  Or they can let us just sit on our asses while Rome burns.  Their choice.

In the meantime, I’ve read a post on another blog that suggests that there is a new conspiracy theory about the availability of Zmapp.  According to this theory, the Dallas ebola patient, Thomas Duncan, is not getting Zmapp not because Mapp ran out of supply.  No, he’s not getting it because he’s black.  In fact, there’s discrimination going on and that’s why black people won’t be getting it.

uh-huh

That’s ridiculous and stupid and anyone who thinks that or spreads that rumor has not been paying attention to the logistics of producing this cocktail of human proteins in tobacco plants.

To the contrary, I would go so far as to say that the only person in the United States who probably has a stash of ZMapp for his own personal use is a black man.   In fact, the White House physicians and Surgeon General wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t corner the market on whatever was left for the president’s exclusive use.  It only makes sense.  You don’t want your president dying on you from ebola.  (This possibility is extremely remote but he does shake a lot of hands)  It’s bad optics and it’s bad for the country, assuming he can actually get ahead of this crisis and be proactive on this one thing after six years of being constantly behind the curve, too cautious and deferential to the ultra wealthy on every other crisis.

So, you know there’s that.

In general though, Americans should continue to think of ebola as a disease without a cure.  If you get it, you will have to rely on your body’s own defenses to fight it off.  So, don’t get it.  Racism has nothing to do with it.  Racism *might* have something to do with poorer people having access to insurance or health care in Texas and several other states.  But when the ZMapp is gone, you can’t make tobacco plants grow any faster, no matter who you are or how much money you’ve got.

 

5 Responses

  1. My guess is that the best (available) cure is cleanliness and hydration.

    • Pretty much. It’s probably like the days of having pneumonia and not having a cure. You just have to wait it out and hope that your body has the reserves to last longer than the infection.

  2. RD, one thing I’ve been curious about is why the Mapp people chose tobacco as the host. Assuming they need a eukayote, why not yeast which has a faster lifecycle?

    • I’m guessing because you get a more controllable yield? The business insider article says they’re going to try it in mammalian cells. That makes sense in terms of properly folding a human-mouse antibody bit from what I can recall, mammalian cells take longer to grow and harvest.
      You can probably get it to express in E. coli as well but that’s super fast and you need to be on your toes. In many respects, it’s still an art form.

      • Interesting! Thanks. The problem with the general reporting I’ve seen is they’re so busy being terrified of frightening anyone with long words they don’t provide much actual information. (So what else is new?)

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