By Adam Jourdan
SHANGHAI (Reuters) - A Chinese drugmaker with military ties has sent an experimental Ebola drug to Africa for use by Chinese aid workers and is planning clinical trials there to combat the disease, executives at the firm told Reuters on Thursday.
Sihuan Pharmaceutical Holdings Group Ltd has supplied several thousand doses of its drug JK-05 to the region, Chief Operating Officer Jia Zhongxin said. More doses could be sent if needed, Jia said.
An Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the worst on record, has killed more than 4,000 people.
Governments and drugmakers around the world have been racing to find a treatment for the outbreak, which has spread as far as the United States and Europe. U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to get more "aggressive" against the disease.
"Aid workers have already taken the drug with them, and if a case breaks out (amongst the aid workers), then the drug may be used," added Huo Caixia, Sihuan's assistant general manager.
Sihuan, part-owned by U.S. investment bank Morgan Stanley, is hoping to get the drug fast-tracked for civilian use in China. It has signed an agreement with the Academy of Military Medical Sciences (AMMS), a research unit, to seek approval for the drug's use in China and push it to market.
The drug, approved in China for emergency military use only, was initially developed by AMMS.
If it proves to be an effective cure it would be a big prize for China's medical sector and a boost to China's soft power in Africa, an increasingly important partner for the world's second-biggest economy.
President Xi Jinping said week China would ramp up efforts against Ebola. "We will continue to work together with the international community to fight against the Ebola epidemic," the Xinhua news agency quoted Xi as telling ambassadors on Wednesday.
Sihuan says it is China's third-largest prescription drugmaker. It was originally a military scientific unit, which was spun off into its current form in 2001.
The company is preparing for clinical trials in Africa and could test the drug on African Ebola patients, said Huo. No Chinese nationals have been infected.
"Right now, we're formulating a plan for clinical trials, and don't rule out the possibility of using African patients," she said, adding that any outbreak of Ebola in Asia or China would speed up the drug's timetable to market.
There are about a million Chinese nationals living in Africa, with some 10,000 in the countries most affected by Ebola, which are Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.
China has sent hundreds of aid workers to Africa to help in the fight against the outbreak and more than $35 million in medical aid to the worst affected countries.
China's military has also given Sihuan the green-light to produce emergency supplies of the drug.
JK-05 has not been used on humans, although Sihuan says it has proven effective in tests on mice.
Its development lags some way behind U.S.-developed ZMapp and TKM-Ebola, which have been tested on monkeys and used on Ebola patients. However, analysts said the drug's similarities to Japanese influenza drug Favipiravir is an encouraging sign.
Japanese firm Fujifilm Holdings Corp last week said the French and Guinean governments were considering clinical trials of Favipiravir, developed by group firm Toyama Chemical Co, to treat patients with Ebola.
Sihuan's Hong Kong-lised shares were up 4.5 percent at 0230 (0630 GMT), far outpacing the wider Hang Seng Index which was down 0.7 percent. The firm's shares are up over 80 percent this year compared with the benchmark index which is broadly flat.