The experimental drug being used to treat two Americans stricken with the Ebola virus while treating patients in Africa was funded in large part by the same Department of Defense unit that developed the Internet. Kentucky BioProcessing, acquired by cigarette-maker Reynolds American Inc. (NYSE:RAI) in January, received millions of dollars from the Pentagon to develop the medicine that may save the lives of missionaries Nancy Writebol and Dr. Kent Brantly.
In 2010, the company received a one-year, $17.9 million contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to produce “a proof-of-concept platform capable of yielding a purified vaccine candidate using a whole plant-based process,” with an expected completion date of March 2011, according to the contract.
DARPA was created in 1958 as the Advanced Research Projects Agency to design and execute cutting-edge technology. Among its most notable creations are the Internet, stealth plane technology and the U.S. military's M16 assault rifle.
For the Ebola virus treatment, Kentucky BioProcessing made the drug cocktail called ZMapp for the San Diego-based lab Mapp Biopharmaceutical. ZMapp is a combination of Ebola treatments that contains three antibodies meant to fight the virus at once. Scientists took the antibodies from mice exposed to Ebola and genetically altered a tobacco plant strain to reproduce the antibodies in large quantities.
Only Kentucky BioProcessing is authorized by the U.S. government to produce ZMapp, and currently, only a handful of doses are available, the director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told CNN Tuesday.
Some are asking if the drug, which may or may not be responsible for Writebol and Brantly’s improving conditions, could be given to the hundreds of Africans dying of Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria. But after three decades of research and millions of U.S. government dollars flowing to various labs, it would still take months to produce more doses of ZMapp, the Washington Post reported. Four to five other Ebola vaccines are on pace for early-stage human trials this fall, all with years of research and government grants behind them, according to the newspaper.