Ethics Panel Endorses The Use Of Experimental Drugs To Slow Ebola

A panel convened by the World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental drugs and vaccines to combat the Ebola outbreak, so long as certain conditions are met.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Melissa Block. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa continues to grow. The World Health Organization says nearly 2,000 people are known to have the virus, and of those, over 1,000 have died. Now an ethics panel convened by the WHO is looking into the use of experimental vaccines and drugs, and it has endorsed using them if certain conditions are met. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: This outbreak of Ebola is unusual because it's hit so many people in multiple countries. And there is another difference.

MARIE-PAULE KIENY: For the first time we have a range of potential treatments and vaccines. They could be potent assets, supporting our efforts to control Ebola virus disease.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Marie-Paule Kieny is assistant director general at the World Health Organization. She says these medicines and vaccines have barely been tested, but animal studies suggest they might help, as did the response of two American missionaries who received doses of one serum.

MARIE-PAULE KIENY: Should we not use them to save lives? It's far too many lives are being lost right now.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The WHO put that question to a special panel. It included bioethicists, infectious disease experts, researchers and others from around the globe. They concluded that yes, in this outbreak it would be ethical to take the unusual step of offering unproven interventions. Jeanine Thomas is a patient safety advocate from Illinois who served on the committee.

JEANINE THOMAS: We have to give some options - some sort of hope because the mortality rate is so high with Ebola.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Her own experience with a severe infection that was resistant to multiple antibiotics has made her understand the plight of people with Ebola and their families.

THOMAS: I would have taken experimental drugs. I would have done that because I wanted to survive.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The WHO panel says, if patients or doctors facing Ebola are to get that choice there needs to be a process to make sure they clearly understand all the risks and the unknowns. Everything must be totally transparent and closely monitored to track what's working and what's not. Jeffrey Kahn is a bioethicist from Johns Hopkins University. He says, it's hard to argue with all that. Still, the dire emergency in West Africa won't make that easy.

JEFFREY KAHN: People are deathly ill. The community is broken or breaking down because of fear and lack of health infrastructure. The individuals whose informed consent we would seek to obtain don't seem to be in a position to give it. Freedom of choice, well, there's nothing else to offer.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The fact that two Americans were offered one of the experimental drugs has raised uncomfortable questions about why it wasn't offered to anyone in Africa sooner. Jerome Singh is a bioethicist with the Center for the AIDS Program of Research in South Africa. He says, there's mistrust but, actually, knowing that Americans got it first may reassure people in stricken countries who may fear being exploited by outsiders.

JEROME SINGH: You can't really make a very compelling argument that Africans are being used as guinea pigs. If anything, the two Americans were used as guinea pigs.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He thinks the question shouldn't be whether to offer Africans an experimental vaccine or drug.

SINGH: It should be how do we get it to Africans as fast as we possibly can?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That would mean dramatically ramping up production. What can be produced, how quickly and who should get it first is the topic for another WHO meeting planned for later this month. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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