As President Trump recovers from Covid-19, he has been singing the praises of an experimental monoclonal antibody cocktail made by Regeneron, which he credits for his fast recovery.
He’s not alone in his optimism. Some infectious disease experts anticipate that monoclonal antibody treatments will become a significant tool in controlling the pandemic, potentially as valuable as a vaccine.
But the credit for this promising breakthrough should not go to Western biomedical research alone. In fact, we have Ebola — and Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum, the intrepid African scientist known as the “Ebola hunter” — to thank for revealing the promise of these therapies.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration this week approved an antibody cocktail made by Regeneron to treat Ebola, the first therapy approved for the virus. The treatment was one of two Regeneron antibody therapies that showed lifesaving potential in clinical trials last year, significantly increasing the chances of survival for people with Ebola, which kills between 25% and 90% of those infected with the virus. Some people in the trial also received remdesivir, an antiviral treatment that was also given to the president.
Muyembe-Tamfum, who directs the National Institute of Biomedical Research in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is one of the pivotal figures in making monoclonal antibodies possible. The French-speaking microbiologist was on the team that investigated the first Ebola outbreak in 1976. In 1995, after a medical team in the DRC transfused Ebola patients with blood donated by those who had recovered from Ebola disease, he led one of the first studies of convalescent antibodies, partnering with the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine and Swiss laboratories to isolate a monoclonal antibody capable of curing infected monkeys.
This eventually led to the successful Ebola trials in 2018 and 2019, and paved the way for the experimental use of antibody therapies against Covid-19.
When the novel coronavirus emerged, national health institutions and pharmaceutical companies rushed to follow a parallel path to develop Covid-19 monoclonal antibodies. And as with Ebola, the early results appear promising. The monoclonal antibody cocktail given to Trump is now awaiting federal approval for emergency use. Two other antibody therapies, developed by AstraZeneca and Eli Lilly, are also being tested in clinical trials.
Now 78 years old, Muyembe-Tamfum plays a role in the DRC similar to that of Dr. Anthony Fauci in the United States, providing scientific and medical leadership in combatting an infectious disease that has plagued his country and the world. His development of monoclonal antibodies represents one of the first times that an African medical researcher has been credited on the world stage for a lifesaving scientific breakthrough. The promise of these therapies to relieve the suffering of Covid-19 patients around the world and potentially bring the pandemic under control is all the more reason to celebrate his scientific achievements.
It is resonant that the name of the Ebola protocol developed from Muyembe-Tamfum’s research is PALM, short for Pamoja Tulinde Maisha, which means “Together Save Lives” in Kiswahili. In that spirit, other countries need to stand with the DRC and other low- and middle-income countries which two international health organizations have warned might be priced out of this lifesaving therapy.
Although monoclonal antibodies gained public visibility when used to heal the U.S. president, this is a breakthrough that belongs to the world — and perhaps to no one more than Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum.
Deborah Jenson is a professor of French, romance studies, and global health at Duke University.