Three of the world's leading Ebola specialists have called for experimental drugs and vaccines to be offered to people in West Africa, where a vast outbreak of the deadly disease is raging in three countries. Noting that American aid workers who contracted the disease in Liberia were given an unapproved medicine before being evacuated back to the United States, the specialists - including Peter Piot, who co-discovered Ebola in 1976 - said Africans affected by the same outbreak should get the same chance.
Peter Piot, David Heymann and Jeremy Farrar, all influential infectious disease professors and respectively directors of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Chatham House Centre on Global Health Security, and the Wellcome Trust, said there were several antiviral drugs, monoclonal antibodies and vaccines under study for possible use against Ebola.
"African governments should be allowed to make informed decisions about whether or not to use these products - for example to protect and treat healthcare workers who run especially high risks of infection," they wrote in a joint statement. The World Health Organization (WHO), "the only body with the necessary international authority" to allow such experimental treatments, "must take on this greater leadership role", they said. "These dire circumstances call for a more robust international response," they added.
Almost 900 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia have been killed by Ebola and more than 1,600 infected since the virus started spreading in Guinea in February. Two American aid workers who fell sick with Ebola in Liberia saw their conditions improve by varying degrees in Liberia after they received an experimental drug called ZMapp, developed by San Diego-based private biotech firm Mapp Biopharmaceutical. Peter Piot, Farrar and Heymann questioned why Africans were not being given the same chance.
If the deadly virus was raging though wealthy countries, they said, medical agencies "would begin discussions with companies and labs developing these products and then make rapid decisions about which of them might be appropriate for compassionate use".
Little of drug available
"Experimental treatments shouldn't be rolled out generally without prior safety testing," they said in their statement, issued in London late on Tuesday. "But in the face of the critical challenge in West Africa, the WHO and Western medical agencies should be helping countries weigh the risks and benefits of limited deployment of the best (drug and vaccine) candidates to those in the greatest need, while continuously monitoring safety and efficacy."
Biotech firm Mapp and its commercial partner Leaf Biopharmaceutical said the ZMapp drug was only identified as a potential treatment candidate in January and that, as a result, very little of it was currently available. The company said that the treatment was hard to produce and that it was working to scale up production as soon as possible.
The ZMapp serum consists of three antibodies manufactured in modified tobacco leaves, which take weeks to grow.
A spokesman for the Geneva-based WHO told Reuters news agency that the United Nations health agency "would not recommend any drug that has not gone through the normal process of licensing and clinical trials".
Treating patients with experimental drugs that have not been tested in humans to determine safety and efficacy is highly unusual.