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The World Health Organization Says Yes To An Experimental Ebola Drug

A panel of experts convened by the World Health Organization has unanimously endorsed the idea of offering unproven vaccines or treatments to help combat the unprecedented Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

This outbreak is unusual not just because it has spread to four countries and involves so many people, says Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, Assistant Director-General at the World Health Organization. It is also the first Ebola outbreak that could possibly benefit from a range of potential experimental treatments and vaccines.

"If these treatments can save lives, as the animal studies suggest, should we not use them to save lives?" Kieny asked.

The WHO endorsement comes after two American missionaries and a Spanish priest received an experimental serum called ZMapp. Right now, there are few available doses of experimental treatments like this one. "I don't think there could be any fair distribution," says Kieny. But work is ongoing to ramp up production and speed clinical trials of various products in the hope of making more experimental drugs and vaccines available later this year.

WHO convened a dozen participants from around the globe to discuss what drugs could be ethically offered when so little is known about the safety and efficacy. The panel included bioethicists, infectious disease experts, researchers and a patient safety advocate.

"In the particular circumstances of this outbreak, and provided certain conditions are met, 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 WHO said in a statement.

Those "certain conditions" include informed consent, freedom of choice and confidentiality. The statement also notes that there is a moral obligation to evaluate the safety and efficacy of the treatments and share all the data.

At the end of the month, WHO will meet again to discuss the available experimental producst and how to ethically distribute them.

Kieny cautioned against the creation of a false hope that Ebola can be treated now. What's needed are traditional public health measures for infection prevention and control, she says: quarantine, limiting movement in and out of the most affected zones, tracing the contacts of infected people. "These are the measures right now which are likely to make a difference."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.