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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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"One hopes that it was on the basis of sound moral reasoning and not just biased affinity for Americans by Americans," said Blumenthal-Barby, who is assistant professor with the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

"Who is going to be the body of people choosing the patients?" Packer added. "I worry about the representation of the four countries involved, for example. Are they going to be fairly represented?"

He is also concerned about how health care workers in the field in West Africa will help desperate patients understand the potential risks of an untested drug.

The outbreak has particularly affected rural parts of Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, and many people in these areas may be unsophisticated in their knowledge of modern medicine.

"You really worry how people in a vulnerable population will understand the risks," he said. "Do you think you can give informed consent, or are you likely to be coercive? How would I explain the risk of a brand-new drug to an African patient?"

Finally, Packer wonders whether spending millions to rush the manufacture of untested drugs is the best use of strained resources.

The same money could be used to improve still-ragged quarantine efforts in West Africa, he said. Officials could buy gloves, masks, biohazard suits and other quarantine supplies, and even pay to help educate more people there on proper quarantine procedures.

"There's no glamor in it, but you talk to any person who knows this kind of stuff, and clearly [improvements in] public health has done more good than any drug ever developed," Packer said.

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