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Biosafety Expert: Experimental Ebola Treatment Is Ethical

By Sean Piccoli   |   Tuesday, 12 Aug 2014 06:17 PM

A Columbia University medical professor defended the doctors who chose to give an experimental Ebola drug to two stricken Americans, telling Newsmax TV on Tuesday that first testing Africans — the primary sufferers of the deadly Ebola virus — could have caused an uproar.

"There was criticism when the two Americans received this treatment [first]," Stephen Morse, epidemiology professor and chairman of Columbia's Institutional Biosafety Committee, told "MidPoint" host Ed Berliner.

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"But on the other hand, people say that if they had given it to the local patients first, there would be a feeling that perhaps we were trying out something untested on the African population," said Morse.

He said that the next challenge — now that one experimental treatment, ZMapp, is showing promise — is fair distrubution of what appears to be a limited supply of the trial drug.

Doctors in Liberia, one of the hardest-hit countries in West Africa, are set to receive supplies of the same ZMapp medicine that appears to have helped a pair of American aid workers, Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol — the first people to ever receive the drug, created by a California firm.

But Morse said, "There probably will not be enough to go around for all the patients, and deciding which patients should be getting it will be a difficult decision."

As the death toll from Ebola passed 1,000 in the latest outbreak, officials with the World Health Organization on Tuesday authorized the use of experimental drugs to treat the virus. Trials for another vaccine, made by pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, could begin in September, WHO officials said.

Morse said that the go-ahead for untested drugs not yet cleared by regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is the correct response under the dire circumstances: The Ebola strain spreading in Western Africa today, through contact with contaminated bodily fluids, is killing nearly four of every five people infected. 

"Similar to cancer chemotherapy, if you have a cancer that's fatal, for which there is a very poor outcome and there's some experimental drug, it's ethical to try that because there's no other way to be sure of saving — or to have a hope of saving — someone's life," said Morse.

He said that if ZMapp and other Ebola trial drugs continue to prove successful, they might someday also be used against other types of severe infections "once we understand how to administrator them and make sure they're safe and effective."

Morse acknowledged that people may view both the manufacturers and the regulators warily, even conspiratorially, when it comes to the timing, financing and distribution of such drugs.

"I don't think they could have gotten much [experimental treatment] out earlier," he said of the makers of ZMapp and similar medicines now coming online. "The reality is with a rare disease like Ebola, and many others, the are very few opportunities to test" new therapies.

As for regulators, such as the FDA, Morse said they're perenially caught between safety concerns and market demand for drugs that show promise.

"It's really very hard to find that right balance," he said, "and right now, using this [Ebola treatment] on an emergency-use basis, the FDA does have a procedure for that … and that allows a compromise."

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