Hong Kong's only remedy for Ebola is a breast cancer drug

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 August, 2014, 4:14am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 August, 2014, 10:36am

A breast cancer drug is the only possible remedy Hong Kong has for an Ebola outbreak after the city was denied supplies of other drugs being tested against the deadly virus.

The medicine, which has shown promise in treating Ebola infections in mice, has never been tested in humans for this purpose. Supplies of other drugs are being kept for patients already infected in the biggest outbreak of the disease now afflicting West Africa.

A government scientific committee on emerging diseases met yesterday to draw up a contingency plan to fight Ebola should the outbreak reach Hong Kong.

It decided to recommend to the government that in such an event, it should use the breast cancer drug, oestrogen receptor antagonist.

Committee chairman Professor Yuen Kwok-yung said the medicine had proved safe for patients with breast cancer and infertility problems.

"It causes mild side effects in these patients, such as nausea, headache and dizziness," he said.

Any use of the medicine for Ebola would require an ethics test and patient consent.

Centre for Health Protection controller Dr Leung Ting-hung stressed that while the possibility of a large-scale outbreak occurring in Hong Kong was "highly unlikely", there was a risk of Ebola reaching the city.

Ebola, with a fatality rate of 54 per cent, has killed more than 1,200 people in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

It spreads through human-to-human transmission with infection resulting from direct contact of blood or bodily fluids.

As the Ebola crisis worsens, international pharmaceutical companies have been trying to develop effective cures and vaccines for the virus, but so far only a few experimental drugs have been produced.

The drugs that are currently being given to patients are mostly experimental ones that have been subject to no or limited tests on humans.

Although pharmaceutical companies in the United States and Canada are speeding up their production rate, supplies are limited.

A untested serum known as Zmapp, which has been used to treat two American health workers infected by the virus, is in the process of being approved by the World Health Organisation to treat Ebola patients in Africa.

The WHO has said no reliable and fully tested vaccine can be developed until next year.

A Department of Health spokesman said it had liaised with manufacturers of four drugs and three vaccines for the treatment and prevention of Ebola.

Watch: What is the Ebola virus?