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article imageEbola, experimental drugs, and human ethics

By Tim Sandle     Aug 9, 2014 in Science
Geneva - The administration of an experimental serum to two U.S. healthcare workers treated for Ebola raises questions of safety, efficacy, access, and ethics, according to the World Health Organization.
The ongoing Ebola Virus Disease ("Ebola") outbreak in West Africa is so serious that the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the situation a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). This is only the third time that such a status has been activated.
As part of the activities, governments and pharmaceutical companies are attempting to develop new drugs (such as one called TKM-Ebola). In one case, an experimental drug called ZMapp was used in the form of a serum on two American healthcare workers who contracted Ebola in Liberia.
The use of ZMapp has caused some controversy, The Washington Post has reported. Centered on this are questions relating to whether and how soon the unapproved drug, which has not been through clinical trials, would be shipped to the center of the outbreak.
In light of the reaction, WHO has announced it is convening a panel of ethicists “to explore the use of experimental treatment in the ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa.” Further, Marie-Paule Kieny, assistant director-general at the WHO stated: "We are in an unusual situation in this outbreak. We have a disease with a high fatality rate without any proven treatment or vaccine. We need to ask the medical ethicists to give us guidance on what the responsible thing to do is."
The Scientist outlines the conundrum:
Both patients treated with ZMapp appear to be doing well post-treatment. But was it the drug that potentially saved their lives? Or might it even have put them in additional danger? Without controlled clinical data, scientists are left scratching their heads.
Despite the WHO's hesitancy, Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar wrote to The Wall Street Journal arguing for drugs like ZMapp to be used. Farrar noted "Ultimately, the only way of discovering whether these new interventions are effective will be to test them in an Ebola epidemic."
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