Two US humanitarian workers who contracted Ebola while working in Liberia have been released from Emory University hospital in Atlanta after receiving an experimental drug treatment which has yet to go through full clinical and human trials.
Dr Kent Brantly of Texas and Nancy Writebol, a missionary from North Carolina, contracted Ebola while responding to the outbreak in Liberia. Brantly and Writebol were both treated in the hospital’s containment unit, which is specially equipped to care for patients with serious communicable diseases.
“Today is a miraculous day,” Brantly said at a press conference at Emory hospital on Thursday to announce his discharge from care. “I am thrilled to be alive, to be well and to be reunited with my family.”
The hospital said Writebol had been quietly released on Tuesday.
The World Health Organization said earlier this month that unlicensed drugs and vaccines can ethically be used to treat the outbreak which has so far claimed at least 1,200 lives in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria.
Doctors cautioned that it was too soon to hope that the treatment could hasten the end of the public health crisis: Dr Bruce Ribner, medical director of Emory hospital’s infectious disease unit said that it was unclear if the drug had contributed to the pair’s recovery and suggested it may have even delayed their return to health.
Liberian officials have said that three African medics who have also been given the treatment are showing “remarkable signs of improvement”.
But Ribner said there was no scientific basis to suggest the treatment was a cure. “They are very first ever to receive these agents. There are no prior experiments with this. We do not know if its improved them ... or even delayed their recovery,” cautioned Ribner.
Even if the treatment is effective, the California-based manufacturer of ZMapp, Mapp Biopharmaceutical, said that “the available supply of ZMapp has been exhausted”.
Brantly and Writebol were both treated in Emory hospital’s containment unit, which is specially equipped to care for patients with serious communicable diseases.
Reinfection is not impossible, but Ebola survivors are highly unlikely to contract the virus a second time and the hospital said their release from hospital posed no risk to public health. “Limited knowledge of the Ebola virus, especially in our country, has created understandable anxiety and fear for some persons,” said Ribner, who said he understood these concerns. “However, we cannot let our fears dictate our actions, we must all care.”
Brantly and his wife held hands before he read from a written statement and he hugged members of his care team. He choked up several times while thanking his aid group, North Carolina-based Samaritan’s Purse, and the Emory medical team standing behind them.
The hospital said Writebol had been discharged without publicity on Tuesday. Asked why the hospital did not announce her release from care, Ribner said the hospital decided to release the patients after a rigorous course of treatment and thorough testing.
“The medical staff at Emory is confident that the discharge from the hospital of both these patients poses no public health threat,” said Ribner.
It is five months since the first case of Ebola was confirmed in Guinea, spreading quickly into Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria. According to the World Health Organization 2,473 people have so far contracted the disease which, once symptomatic, can kill within five days .
Brantly said the virus was not on the radar when he and his family moved to west Africa two years ago, but he noticed a steady increase in Ebola patients in June and July. His wife and children returned to the US on 20 July, but Brantly stayed on to continue his work.
Three days later, he fell ill. “I woke up feeling under the weather, and then my life took an unexpected turn as I was diagnosed with Ebola virus disease,” he said.
Brantly, 33, was flown out of Liberia on 2 August on a private jet outfitted with a containment tent and was admitted to Emory, which is one of only four institutions in the US capable of properly handling patients with a disease of this nature, according to the hospital. Writebol, 59, arrived three days later.
The two emphasized their desire to spend time with their families, since the nature of the disease requires isolation treatment.
“My family and I will now be going away for a period of time to reconnect, decompress and recover,” Brantly said, after thanking all the people involved in his care and hugging many individually at the press conference. “For now, we need some time together, after a month apart.”
Writebol has gone to “an undisclosed location”, said the North Carolina-based aid group SIM, for whom she had been working in Liberia.
“Nancy is free of the virus, but the lingering effects of the battle have left her in a significantly weakened condition,” her husband, David, said in a statement. “Thus, we decided it would be best to leave the hospital privately to be able to give her the rest and recuperation she needs at this time.”
Ribner warned that the fight against Ebola is “far from over”, as it continues to spread across west Africa. “What we learned in caring for them will help advance the world’s understanding of how to treat Ebola infections and hopefully improve,” said Ribner.
The two missionaries’ survival has given fresh impetus to the search for a vaccine.
US clinical trials for what scientists hope is a promising new vaccine have been brought forward, according to the US National Institutes of Health. Its researchers have been working on a vaccine with Okairos, a Swiss-Italian company owned by Britain’s GlaxoSmithKline for years. Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told the Los Angeles Times: “We’re dealing with an urgent situation.”
The disease is out of control in Sierra Leone and Liberia, the two worst-affected countries in west Africa, both of which have declared states of emergency.
This week MSF director of operations Brice de la Vigne told the Guardian the international community was paying “almost zero” interest in the crisis, saying the outbreak would not be contained unless western leaders implemented an emergency operation comparable with the response to a natural disaster.