More than 4,000 people in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone have contracted Ebola since March, according to the World Health Organization. To date, more than 2,300 people have died, mostly in West African countries.
ZMapp, an experimental drug to treat those infected by the Ebola virus has been developed by the biotech firm Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc., based in San Diego. So far, there are some individuals who have been provided with the experimental drug. Two American aid workers, who were the first patients treated for the Ebola virus at a hospital in the United States, recovered from the disease. William Pooley, the first Briton to contract Ebola during the outbreak, was given the experimental drug ZMapp and also recovered. However, father Miguel Pajares, a Spanish Catholic priest who contracted the disease in Liberia was also treated with the experimental drug but he did not respond and died of Ebola on August 12. More recently, on Sept. 5, an American doctor who was infected with the disease arrived in the United States for treatment. In total, 5 out of 7 people treated with ZMapp have recovered.
Mapp Biopharmaceuticals said in a statement that its drug, Zmapp, was only identified as a possible Ebola treatment in January of this year, and has not yet been evaluated for safety in humans or approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. However, while it is true that the FDA must grant permission to use experimental treatments in the United States, the FDA does not have authority over the use of such a drug in other countries, therefore, in theory, the antidote could be administered in other countries with their government’s permission.
As people in Africa continue to die of the disease some have wondered why the experimental drug has not be made available to them. Should untested, experimental drugs to combat Ebola be made widely available?
There are other issues that appear of concern to those studying the spread of Ebola. The WHO says conventional means of controlling the outbreak, which include avoiding close physical contact with those infected and wearing personal protective equipment, are not working in African countries. The reason could be linked to burial practices, which can include touching the body and eating a meal near it. There are also not enough resources in the affected countries to treat Ebola patients. The aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres has expressed the frustration of health workers at the largest treatment centre in Monrovia, Liberia, being completely overwhelmed with the lack of medical supplies and about not having sufficient beds to treat people infected, having to turn people away who might be infected with the virus.
Some have argued that the seriousness of the current Ebola outbreak means there is a moral imperative to abandon normal stringent testing and get the experimental drugs to sufferers as quickly as possible. There are those who even go to the extent of hinting at an underlying racism in the administration of the Ebola experimental treatment. They argue that African lives are worth less than Western ones, and that it is highly likely that if Ebola were now spreading in Western countries, public health authorities would give at-risk patients access to experimental drugs or vaccines.
However, the issue surrounding the moral obligations other countries might have about providing help to those African counties affected by the disease is not limited to the ethics of making widely available an experimental drug to people in Africa, but also about the moral imperative of providing help with the basic resources needed to combat the disease, such as hospitals, beds, medical supplies, etc. These are resources easily available for Western governments and for which no FDA approval is required.
It is difficult to fathom that there would not be a massive response to such a public health situation if the same circumstances were found in Europe, the US or some other place with greater impact on the global economy. The reality is that the response to the spread of Ebola in West Africa has been lethargic, poorly coordinated and devoid of a sense urgency that should always be present when human lives are in peril.