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Japan pharma companies hope to help Ebola fight

New influenza drug Avigan, developed by Fujifilm Holdings' group company Toyama Chemical, is drawing the worldwide attention as a possible treatment for Ebola.

TOKYO -- Japanese pharmaceutical producers are hopeful about joining global efforts to contain Ebola.

     Late on Sept. 19, Koichi Yamada, manager at Fujifilm's pharmaceutical unit was stunned to learn that an influenza drug developed by Fujifilm Holdings' group company Toyama Chemical was administered to a female nurse with Ebola virus disease. The news came from a French health authority official who told Yamada while he was in Geneva for an emergency World Health Organization session.

     Two days before, Yamada had handed a French government official in Paris a small quantity of the drug Avigan for a clinical trial to verify its effectiveness against Ebola.

     However, he did not expect the drug to be used for human patients. At the time, he was told that the flu medication would be locked in a safe, unlikely to be used on an Ebola patient anytime soon.

Perception gap

The manager repeatedly reminded health officials in Europe and Africa that the influenza drug might trigger side effects if given to Ebola patients, but they argued that every potentially effective treatment available should be used if it can save lives. In their opinion, it was useless wasting time on discussions of possible side effects. 

     Yamada became keenly aware of the gap in perceptions of the crisis between health officials in Europe and Africa and those in Japan. The nurse who was given several types of drugs, including Avigan, was cured and discharged from hospital.

     There are several drugs, including Avigan, that are reported to be effective for Ebola. However, none of them have been proven so.

     Medical practitioners in Europe and elsewhere have been pursuing every possible treatment against the drug, which caused Fujifilm to offer Avigan to Ebola patients, but only on demand.

Determined to help

Morifumi Wada, president of Eiken Chemical, a midsize test agent maker, is also determined to join the fight against Ebola.

     In October, he made a decision to develop a test agent that would quickly reveal if a subject has contracted the virus or not. He said that his company has to help the battle against Ebola as it is a specialist medical company.

     The chemical company already has experience with virus research. In 2009, a new strain of influenza broke out in Japan and the company managed to develop a test agent for the virus within a few months. Its technology enabled Eiken to amplify virus genes and detect diseases present in the body within an hour.  

     Researchers were able to achieve the development rapidly, because they had fast access to samples of infected mucous membrane, which was everywhere in Japan at that time. The samples were crucial for developing the test.

     In case of Ebola, samples of infected blood needed to develop a test are only readily found in Africa, where the disease is most rampant. But there are a number of hurdles to clear before launching such a project. These include securing specialized facilities that would allow medical staff to safely handle the deadly virus and the availability of competent researchers. Some Eiken Chemical employees doubt if the development of an Ebola test is possible for a private company in Japan.

(Nikkei) 

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