International Panel Clears Untested Ebola Drugs as Death Toll Hits 1,000

World Health Organization says it's ethical to use experimental drugs against the disease.

Nancy Writebol, an American aid worker infected with the Ebola virus in Liberia, arrives at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta on August 5, 2014.

An international panel of medical experts decided today that untested drugs can be used ethically in West Africa to combat what has become the largest outbreak of the deadly Ebola disease in history. More than 1,000 people have died, and more than 1,800 have been sickened by the virus.

The Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) panel said "a specific treatment or vaccine would be a potent asset to counter the virus."

The WHO added that such treatments would bolster current efforts to stop the spread of the disease by isolating patients and monitoring their progress. A few experimental treatments for Ebola are in the works, but none have been tested on human beings. Using the drugs is controversial because their safety and efficacy are unknown. (See "World Health Organization to Ethicists: Should We Use Experimental Ebola Drugs?")

Last month, the debate heated up when two American aid workers who had contracted Ebola in West Africa were given doses of an experimental drug called ZMapp. Since then, Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol seem to be improving. But a Spanish priest who also received the drug, Miguel Pajares, died this morning.

Despite early hesitation by the medical community to use untried treatments, the WHO said, "The large number of people affected by the 2014 West Africa outbreak, and the high case-fatality rate, have prompted calls to use investigational medical interventions to try to save the lives of patients and to curb the epidemic." (Related: "Promising Ebola Drugs Stuck in Lab Limbo as Outbreak Rages in Africa.")

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The WHO did not respond to requests for comment, but in the agency's statement, the panel said any use of untested therapies must follow strict guidelines. These include "transparency about all aspects of care, informed consent, freedom of choice, confidentiality, respect for the person, preservation of dignity and involvement of the community."

The panel added that there is a "moral obligation to collect and share all data generated" from the use of any treatments.

On Monday, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told National Geographic it would take time to produce enough of the handful of drugs in development to treat more than a few patients.

Others warned that dispensing the drugs in a region with a history of distrust of medical professionals could be challenging. (Related: "Ebola's Deadly Spread in Africa Driven by Public Health Failures, Cultural Beliefs.")

Kevin Donovan, director of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University Medical Center, told National Geographic that he would recommend distributing any available drugs first to aid workers.

"Because if we allow the people who are treating it to be wiped out, there's no one left to treat it," he said. (Related: "Q&A: American Virus Expert in Africa's Ebola Zone: 'This is Like War.'")

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