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WHO Experts Give Nod to Using Untested Ebola Drugs

Move would be justified in 'particular circumstances' of current outbreak, ethicists say
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On the surface, the choice seems obvious: Why wouldn't officials use every tool in their arsenal to combat what WHO now labels a "public health emergency"?

But ethicists say there's a hornet's nest of questions involved in making these largely untested drugs available to sick people.

Who would be first in line to get short-in-supply medications? Who will make that decision? How will doctors collect data on how the drugs perform? How do you communicate the risks of an experimental drug to a poorly educated inhabitant of a rural village? And would the money for these drugs be better spent on quarantine supplies and public education, to help prevent disease transmission?

"Some people look at the word 'expedited' as very favorable," said Dr. Samuel Packer, chair of the ethics committee at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y. "Who wouldn't want something expedited? It can be very hard to say that's not a good thing to do. But history says a lot of time when we rush things through, people are harmed."

ZMapp is an antibody cocktail made by a small San Diego-based biotech firm. The two U.S. aid workers who received it, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, have been evacuated to the United States and appear to be recovering, according to media reports.

In the meantime, desperation has opened the floodgates. Other drug manufacturers have also come forward to urge the use of their own untested Ebola medications.

Waiving the usual requirements of waiting for the results of rigorous clinical trials may seem appealing -- particularly since Brantly and Writebol appear to have benefited from the therapy. But have they really? And the drug was not enough to save Pajares.

"The problem is you have no idea whether the medication worked or didn't work," said Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, chair of the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine. "You can't know after treating only two people, with a disease like this."

There's also the sticky question of choosing who of the thousands infected will get the drug. According to medical ethicist Jennifer Blumenthal-Barby, that bridge has already been crossed, in part, with the decision to give the few existing samples of ZMapp to Brantly and Writebol, rather than to any of the nearly 1,800 West Africans who have been infected by Ebola.

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