Despite ethical questions, the World Health Organization approved untested Ebola drugs for use against the deadly virus in West Africa. The epidemic, which was declared an international public health emergency, continues to kill people, with the death toll soaring over 1,000.
Currently, there is no treatment or vaccine against the Ebola virus and drug companies are trying to develop various ways to battle the disease. An experimental drug, called ZMapp, was administered to two American missionaries and then, to Spanish priest who also contracted the infection while being in West Africa. On Tuesday morning, Miguel Pajares, who was transported to a Madrid hospital for treatment, was announced dead. However, the two Americans, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, are recovering. The controversial results of the serum, developed by US pharmaceutical company Mapp Biopharmaceutical, raised many questions: Is it ethical to treat sick people with untested and unproved medications? Who has the right or the privilege to receive treatment and who doesn’t? After all, you can’t know for certain whether the drug will be effective or not, and for whom.
This week experts from WHO set up a panel of ethicists to decide whether the drug should be used in West African countries. It also included infectious disease experts, patient representatives, and the Doctors Without Borders organization. They said on Tuesday that considering the scale of the outbreak and the fact that it is out of control, it is ethical to treat patients with the experimental drug. The decision was also influenced by the announcement by the Liberian government on Monday that they had ordered doses of the medication. Three Liberian doctors, who are infected with the deadly disease, will be treated, Liberian officials also said. However, ZMapp manufacturer admitted that due to the demand from affected countries, it has run out of supplies.
Meanwhile, the Canadian government said it would donate up to 1,000 doses of experimental Ebola vaccine to the WHO. According to the country’s Public Health Agency, it has shown promising results in an animal research. Another vaccine, still in development, is expected to be ready for public use in 2015, WHO said. It is developed by British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline in cooperation with American scientists from the Vaccine Research Center at the US National Institute of Health.
The doses of ZMapp will be delivered to some of the affected areas in West Africa. However, people have doubts about countries’ access to the treatment – who will receive it and who won’t. And which companies have enough quantities of experimental Ebola drugs? The WHO said that it won’t be responsible for giving out doses; rather, it will give information and connect drug makers to governments and agencies. The other, and most important question concerns the safety of such experimental treatments. ZMapp, as well as other drugs such as the TKM-Ebola by Tekmira Pharmaceuticals, haven’t been tested on humans. In animals, they have shown some positive results, but theirs is no way to know how exactly they would work on people. Of course, they may also have dangerous side effects, experts explain. No one knows whether they will do good or bad.
Either way, African nations who are now struggling with the Ebola epidemic, say that not testing ZMapp (and others) on the patients now will mean certain death.