This week, the World Health Organization announced that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has killed more than 1,900 people. This is the largest Ebola outbreak in history, with more people dying in this outbreak than all the other outbreaks since the virus was first detected in 1976.

Ebola Outbreak Workers

Source: European Commission DG ECHO via flickr.

The problem, of course, is that there isn't an approved vaccine, and once patients are infected, there aren't any drugs approved to treat the viral infection. It isn't clear whether the current strain is more infectious than previous Ebola outbreaks or if the outbreak wasn't identified and controlled early, possibly because of decreased funding of surveillance at the WHO.

Either way, the current Ebola outbreak is a major issue. The WHO estimates it could take six to nine months to get the Ebola outbreak under control. In the meantime, the disease could take 10,000 lives.

Experimental drugs to fight Ebola outbreaks
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced this week a contract with Mapp Biopharmaceutical to help develop its ZMapp serum. The privately held biotech will get $24.9 million over the next 18 months, after which the government can add up to another $17.4 million to help Mapp gain FDA approval.

Mapp used its entire stock of ZMapp serum to treat seven patients who were infected with the virus, two of whom have died. The drug, which is a cocktail of three antibodies directed at the virus, hasn't been tested in clinical trials yet, but the recovery rate of the seven who received the drug appears to be better than the survival rate, which the WHO pegs at 47%.

After the outbreak, the FDA moved Tekmira Pharmaceuticals' (NASDAQ:ABUS) TKM-Ebola from a full clinical hold to a partial clinical hold, which allows the company to potentially use the drug in specific experimental cases. TKM-Ebola was put on hold in July after severe immune responses were seen in healthy volunteers receiving the drug in a dose-escalation study. The FDA wants more information on the immune responses -- called a cytokine release -- and how the side effect will be treated before the phase 1 trial can be restarted in healthy volunteers, but the FDA apparently allowed the use on people already infected because the reward of a potential cure justified the risk of side effects.

Sarepta Therapeutics (NASDAQ:SRPT) was developing a treatment for Ebola, AVI-7537, before the U.S. government cut funding for the project in 2012. When the outbreak started, Sarepta offered up the drug it still had on hand, but it doesn't appear that the government has taken Sarepta up on the offer just yet.

Both TKM-Ebola and AVI-7537 attack the virus' RNA to inhibit replication of the virus.

At least three vaccines against Ebola are in development. GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK) and NewLink Genetics (NASDAQ:NLNK) are scheduled to start clinical trials this year, and Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) expects to begin clinical testing of its vaccine early next year.

While vaccines would be a welcome tool in the fight to control Ebola, they're unlikely to help with this outbreak since it'll be years before they're approved.

Foolish final thoughts
In all likelihood, none of these companies will see a massive influx of profit from an Ebola drug -- vaccines and treatments targeted toward the largely poor countries that are currently battling Ebola would need to be priced for affordability. So I'd encourage you not to invest in a company because it's taking aim at Ebola. For me, the focus here is on defeating a truly scary disease and guaranteeing a better standard of medical care for everyone. So I'm hoping for some great news to come out of the oncoming clinical trials -- this disease needs to be beaten.

Brian Orelli has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Johnson & Johnson. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.