The US government is providing Mapp Biopharmaceuticals with funding and support worth up to $42.3 million to accelerate the development of its promising Ebola drug ZMapp.

Through the US Department of Health and Human Services, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority will provide cash, expertise and technical support for manufacturing, regulatory, and nonclinical activities through the 18-month, $24.9-million, contract, which can be extended up to $42.3 million.

“While ZMapp has received a lot of attention, it is one of several treatments under development for Ebola, and we still have very limited data on its safety and efficacy,” explained Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary for preparedness and response. “Developing drugs and vaccines to protect against Ebola as a biological threat has been a long-term goal of the US government, and [this] agreement represents an important step forward.”

Because it is an early-stage experimental drug, ZMapp is still only available in very small quantities. Crucially, BARDA said it plans to work closely with Mapp to optimise and accelerate its production so testing can be done as soon as possible, ultimately boosting the amount of product potentially available to treat patients.

100% effective in monkeys

Much hope is being pinned on the drug’s potential which is yet to be tested in human clinical trials. ZMapp - a combination of three monoclonal antibodies manufactured in tobacco plants - is credited with saving the lives of two American healthcare workers who were infected with Ebola (although this is unproven), and the most recent trial with the drug showed 100% effectiveness against the virus in infected monkeys.

William Pooley, the first British national to contract Ebola during the current outbreak, has also now made a full recovery after receiving treatment, including with ZMapp, at the Royal Free Hospital in London. He has now been discharged. However, an Ebola-infected Spanish priest died despite having received the drug.