How an on-hold Ebola treatment is boosting Tekmira

With the Ebola outbreak in West Africa proving difficult to control, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Tom Frieden, the world is looking to the pharmaceutical industry for solutions.

That's pushing up shares of a money-losing Canadian biotech firm called Tekmira Pharmaceuticals (TKMR), which has been working on a treatment called TKM-Ebola. The stock jumped by almost one-third last week, and rose another 12 percent in early trading on Monday, before slipping back along with the rest of the market.

But like everything related to Ebola, the story isn't all that clear-cut. The company disclosed last month that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration placed the treatment's trial on hold as it sought to ensure that higher doses are safe, with Tekmira adding that the issue should be cleared up by year-end.

So if the trial is on hiatus, why did the stock surge? That's because the FDA said it "stands ready" to work with biotech firms to help patients in "dire need," Reuters reported on Saturday.

Given the emergency situation, the FDA may allow "compassionate consideration" for victims of Ebola, Rossi A. Hassad, an associate professor at Mercy College and a member of the American College of Epidemiology, told CBS MoneyWatch. The FDA may also "expedite the processing of their applications on the clinical trials, and ease some of the bureaucracy."

Even though the trial is on hold, Tekmira can start a new trial proposal, such as testing the treatment on people already fighting the Ebola virus, Reuters noted.

The treatment is considered one of the most advanced medications for Ebola, Vox notes. The company has been awarded a $140 million contract from the Department of Defense to develop the therapy, which protected 100 percent of primates infected with a lethal dose of the virus in an earlier study.

Tekmira didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Others are also working on Ebola treatments, with Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg working on an antibody cocktail with San Diego's Mapp Pharmaceutical, Toronto-based Defyrus Inc. and the U.S. Army. Meanwhile, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health told "CBS This Morning" that the agency is hopeful about potential treatments to prevent infection, although he didn't specify which company or institute is developing it. Human trials will start in September, he noted.

One issue for developers of Ebola treatments is the size of the market, given that the disease, while deadly, has affected relatively small numbers of people. West African countries would likely buy an effective treatment, as well as the U.S. government, which would stockpile it, Hassad said.

At least 729 people across West Africa have died in the latest outbreak, which has impacted three capital cities in the region. Meanwhile, a second American missionary who has contracted the disease is slated to arrive in the U.S. on Tuesday for treatment.

The aid workers were given an experimental serum to treat their Ebola infections, according to the aid group they worked for, Samaritan's Purse. The group didn't name the treatment, but Tekmira didn't provide it, according to Reuters.

With no cure for the virus, Ebola outbreaks can have a mortality rate of 90 percent, with victims succumbing from a hemorrhagic fever. Still, it's not as easily transmitted between people because it requires contact with bodily fluids and blood, compared with airborne spreading of illnesses such as the flu.

  • Aimee Picchi

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