By Delia M. Arias De Leon
UNITED NATIONS – In an effort to counter the alarming spread of the Ebola virus in Africa, a group of medical experts convened by the World Health Organization has endorsed the use of experimental, untested treatments on diseased patients, but delayed answering the question: Just who will receive it?
The panel, which comprised 12 advisers to the WHO from 10 different countries, was convened Monday in response to alarm over the use of the untested drug, ZMapp, to treat two American workers diagnosed with the deadly virus.
Following the meeting, the WHO declared, “In the particular circumstances of this outbreak, the panel reached consensus that it is ethical to offer unproven interventions with as yet unknown efficacy and adverse effects, as potential treatment or prevention.”
The panel did not discuss who should be given priority to receive experimental treatments. The question will not be addressed until later in the month, when another medical experts panel will be convened, according to the WHO’s spokeswoman.
ZMapp’s maker, Mapp Pharmaceutical, has claimed “very little of the drug is currently available,” and other options are limited.
The current strain of the virus is the deadliest and most widespread in human history.
Just last week, following a two-day meeting, the international, U.N.-sponsored organization determined that the current outbreak constituted an international health emergency, stating the situation constitutes an “extraordinary event” and is a serious public health risk to other states.
As of Monday, the cumulative number of cases of Ebola reported between the four countries currently at risk (Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone) stood at 1,848, including 1,013 deaths.
Just on Aug. 5 and 6, a total of 68 new cases of the disease were identified, as well as 29 deaths.
As the Independent reported, ZMapp is now also being sent to Liberia, where two ill African doctors await it. They are set to become the first Africans to receive it, amid criticism that only Westerners had gotten access to the potentially life-saving drug.
The amount of ZMapp being provided to Liberia has not been disclosed, but the company reportedly has run out of its supply, in response to demand from an undisclosed West African country.
Several other companies have started developing vaccines, and clinical trials are under way. As Reuters reported, British drug maker GlaxoSmithKline is set to start testing a product it is co-developing with American scientists “later this year.”
However, even if fast-tracked and assuming it worked as well as hoped, the new vaccine could not be ready for widespread deployment until 2015 – potentially too late for an Ebola outbreak that has been unprecedented in its range.
During a press briefing following the ethics panel’s discussion, a spokeswoman for the organization called upon companies to scale up production as quickly as possible, as well as give priority to continued clinical trials.
She also referred to the lack of readily approved treatments and vaccines for Ebola as a “market failure,” arguing that there has been little financial incentive for companies to develop drugs to combat Ebola because it has traditionally struck only low-income countries in Africa.
The workers who were given experimental medicine, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, currently are receiving treatment in strict isolation at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, and are reportedly doing well. However, there is no way to know whether they are improving because of the vaccine or because their bodies are naturally overcoming Ebola, like other survivors.
Similarly, when asked about the death of a Spanish priest who had received ZMapp and did not survive, a spokeswoman for the WHO stated that at this stage, they could not know whether the drug was ineffective or he had simply been too ill at the time of its administration.