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Experts defend giving new Ebola drug to two US citizens, amid 1,000 African deaths

As virus toll rises in Africa, US experts defend using experimental medicine on Americans

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 August, 2014, 10:57pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 August, 2014, 10:58pm
 

The decision to use an experimental drug to treat two Americans infected with Ebola, while nearly 1,000 Africans have died without access to a cure, has sparked controversy. But US experts say it was ethically justified.

The World Health Organisation announced on Wednesday that it was convening a meeting next week to explore the use of experimental drugs in the West African outbreak, after two health workers from the US charity Samaritan's Purse were treated with a drug called ZMapp.

Remember there is harm that can come from unproven treatments
KEVIN DONOVAN, CENTRE FOR BIOETHICS

The experimental drug is still in an early phase of development and has been tested only on monkeys. It has never been produced on a large scale. There is no proven cure for Ebola.

Samaritan's Purse members Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, however, have improved since taking the drug.

The news has prompted calls to make the drug available to hard-hit Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Nigeria, where there have been seven cases, has announced talks with the US Centres for Disease Control on getting access to ZMapp.

And three leading Ebola experts, including Peter Piot, who co-discovered the virus in 1976 and is director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, called for the drug to be made more widely available.

"It is highly likely that if Ebola were now spreading in Western countries, public health authorities would give at-risk patients access to experimental drugs or vaccines," they said.

"The African countries where the current outbreaks of Ebola are occurring should have the same opportunity," they added.

Mapp Pharmaceuticals, the US company behind the drug, said any decision to use the drug should be made by treating doctors within regulatory guidelines, and added it was working to increase production.

But US President Barack Obama said that afflicted countries should focus on proven public health measures, rather than an untested drug.

Experts said extending the use of ZMapp would be complicated. They also dismissed questions over the fairness of offering ZMapp first, and so-far only, to the two Americans infected.

"When you have that high a fatality rate, the pressures might appear irresistible, but you do have to remember there is harm that can come from unproven treatments," said Kevin Donovan, director of Georgetown University's Centre for Bioethics.

He said Brantly and Writebol were good candidates for taking the risky drug, since their medical training would have helped them understand the danger.

In China, health authorities have been preparing for an Ebola outbreak, though there have been no cases yet.

Ten national-level research institutes are studying the virus, according to Xu Jianguo, of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

Additional reporting by Zhuang Pinghui

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