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UN: OK to use untested Ebola drugs in outbreak

By Ciaran Giles

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 12 2014 7:56 p.m. MDT

Updated: Tuesday, Aug. 12 2014 7:56 p.m. MDT

A health worker assists a colleague with his protective gear, as they collect the body of a man suspected to have died from the ebola virus, in Monrovia, Liberia, Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014. The World Health Organization declared it’s ethical to use untested drugs and vaccines in the ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa although the tiny supply of one experimental drug handed out to three people has been depleted and it could be many months until more is available.

Abbas Dulleh, Associated Press

MADRID — The World Health Organization declared it's ethical to use untested drugs and vaccines in the ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa although the tiny supply of one experimental treatment has been depleted and it could be many months until more is available.

The last of the drug is on its way to Liberia for two stricken doctors, according to a U.K.-based public relations firm representing Liberia. The U.S. company that makes it said the supply is now "exhausted."

A Spanish missionary priest who died Tuesday in Madrid was the third person to receive the experimental treatment called ZMapp. Two U.S. aid workers who received it in recent weeks are said to be improving.

The outbreak has killed more than 1,000 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria.

There is no proven treatment or vaccine for Ebola; several are in early stages of development. ZMapp, made by Mapp Pharmaceuticals, is so new that it has never been tested in humans although an early version worked in some monkeys infected with Ebola. It's aimed at boosting the immune system's efforts to fight off Ebola.

"If there are drugs that can save lives — as animal studies have suggested — shouldn't we use them to save lives?" Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, an assistant director-general at WHO, told a press conference Tuesday.

But it is "very important to not give false hope to anybody that Ebola can be treated now. This is absolutely not the case," she added.

ZMapp is made in tobacco plants, and U.S. officials have estimated that only a modest amount could be produced in two or three months, unless some way to speed up production is found.

The U.N. health agency says 1,013 people have died so far in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa of the 1,848 suspected or confirmed cases recorded by authorities. The killer virus is spread by direct contact with bodily fluids like blood, diarrhea and vomit.

Some experts weren't convinced any novel drugs or vaccines would make a difference in ending the current outbreak.

Once they're put to the test, most experimental drugs that seemed promising in animal studies "don't turn out to benefit people," said Dr. Jesse Goodman, former chief scientist for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, now at Georgetown University Medical Center.

He said some drugs prove harmful. "Unless we can ascertain that carefully, how do we really help people in the long run?"

After the two Americans received the experimental drug, officials in Liberia requested it. Officials in Sierra Leone and Guinea have expressed interest in getting experimental treatments but haven't yet asked.

"The Liberians can count on their government, but Guineans can only count on God in the face of Ebola," said Assiatou Diallo, a nurse in Conakry, Guinea's capital.

The Spanish missionary, 75-year-old Miguel Pajares, died in Madrid's Carlos III Hospital, the hospital and his order said. A doctor who was part of the team treating the priest confirmed he received the experimental drug. The doctor, an infectious diseases specialist, spoke on condition of anonymity, not being authorized to discuss the treatment.

Pajares' body will be cremated Wednesday to avoid any public health risks, the hospital said. He had worked for the San Juan de Dios hospital order, a Catholic group, helping to treat people with Ebola in Liberia when he became ill and was evacuated.

WHO said the size of the outbreak — the biggest in history and the first in West Africa — made the experimental use of drugs ethical even though there is no evidence they work and it is possible they could be dangerous. The agency convened an expert panel of ethicists, infectious disease experts and patient representatives to discuss the issue on Monday.

"We don't have enough people to rely on the traditional methods if we want to stop the outbreak as soon as possible," Kieny said.

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