Experimental Ebola Drug Raises Ethical Issues

By Karen Langhauser, Digital Content Manager

Aug 12, 2014

When the three non-Africans known to have contracted Ebola were given some of the first, very limited doses of an experimental drug, ZMapp, it opened the door to ethical debate in the media, including everything from op-eds to the use of the Twitter hashtag, #‎GiveUsTheSerum‬.

American doctor Kent Brantly and aid worker Nancy Writebol, who were infected with Ebola while working at a missionary clinic outside Liberia’s capital, were the first to receive Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc.’s experimental therapy ZMapp, before flying back to the U.S. Both remain isolated in the hospital but are showing signs of improvement. 

According to Spanish health authories, a 75-year-old Spanish priest, who also contracted the Ebola virus in Liberia, underwent ZMapp treatment in Madrid under state medical protocols allowing the use of “unauthorized medications” when the patient’s life is in danger, but died from the virus on Tuesday.

The World Health Organization reports that 1,013 people have died in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Additionally, authorities have recorded 1,848 suspected, probable or confirmed cases of the disease. None of these Africans received the experimental Ebola treatment.

Industry experts are quick to point out that until now, ZMapp has not yet been tested in humans for safety or effectiveness, and thus could potentially have very negative side effects. Additionally, because the manufacturer has only been planning for phase 1 clinical trials, very few courses of the experimental treatment have been manufactured. 

The United Nations World Health Organization convened on Monday with ethicists, infectious disease experts, patient representatives and the Doctors Without Borders group to discuss the the use of experimental medicines in treating Ebola. According to Dr. Keiji Fukuda, WHO Assistant Director-General for Health Security, the meeting will help develop a framework for how the issue of untested drugs should be approached in this instance and future occurances.

Shortly after, AP News reported that the Liberian government will receive doses of an experimental Ebola drug to treat two sick doctors -- making them the first Africans to receive some of the scarce treatment in a spiraling outbreak. 

While there is no Ebola vaccine or treatment available, there are several in development besides ZMapp, including Tekmira Pharmaceuticals' TKM-Ebola.