By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) – U.S. health authorities said on Wednesday they were preparing to send an experimental Ebola treatment to the Democratic Republic of Congo for use in a clinical trial aimed at stemming an outbreak in the country that has spread to Mbandaka, a city of about 1.5 million people.

The trial would test the effectiveness of a treatment called mAb114 against the highly contagious virus, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), said in a telephone interview.

He said mAb114 was made from the antibodies of the survivor of an Ebola outbreak in Kikwit, Congo, in 1995.

Scientists in Fauci’s vaccine research center had just begun a first-in-man trial of the treatment last week when Fauci said he received a request from the health ministry in Congo asking that the treatment be used in a clinical trial there.

“We haven’t even done the phase 1 yet,” Fauci said, but added that he was “happy to do it,” as long at the trial is done in collaboration with the World Health Organization.

The WHO is already in discussions over whether the government in Congo will give approval for the use of ZMapp, a similar antibody drug made by Mapp Biopharmaceuticals of San Diego. The agency last week said it could be available shortly.

A government spokeswoman said on Wednesday Congo would first need the approval of an ethics committee before it can use any experimental treatment.

The NIH treatment is a passive antibody. It works by transferring antibodies made by a survivor of a disease to a person who has not been exposed. “It has the effect of a vaccine,” Fauci said.

He said the NIH drug has a few advantages over ZMapp, which he said is given in several doses and needs to be refrigerated. The NIH treatment can be turned into a crystallized form and reconstituted in the field with a fluid such as saline.

The United States has 90 doses of the drug it can make available shortly, and will have another batch by the end of the year, Fauci said.

The latest outbreak is Congo’s ninth since the disease made its first known appearance near the northern Ebola river in the 1970s, and has raised concerns that the virus could spread downstream to the capital Kinshasa, which has a population of 10 million.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Additional reporting by Aaron Ross in Dakar; Editing by Tom Brown)

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