GENEVA/WASHINGTON -- With the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa spinning out of control, the World Health Organization on Tuesday endorsed the use of untested drugs to curb the epidemic.
The highly unusual step by the world health body reflects the desperation among health workers. There is currently no proven cure or vaccine for Ebola, which has claimed more than 1,000 lives in the latest outbreak.
"In the particular circumstances of this outbreak, and provided certain conditions are met, the panel reached consensus that it is ethical to offer unproven interventions with as yet unknown efficacy and adverse effects, as potential treatment or prevention," the WHO said in a statement.
The panel did not mention a specific drug. But it made its decision after the U.S. treated two Americans who were infected in West Africa with the experimental drug ZMapp. Although the panel's latest decision removes a first barrier, there are at least three more obstacles in getting the treatments to patients.
First, mass production remains a challenge. ZMapp is made by Kentucky BioProcessing, a subsidiary of second-ranked U.S. tobacco producer Reynolds American. Because the drug is made by cultivating genetically modified tobacco, securing substantial amounts of the drug will take months. U.S. media have reported that supplies have run out.
Second, the treatments are expensive. Canada's Tekmira Pharmaceuticals is currently working on TKM-Ebola, which applies a biological process called RNA interference. But this drug decomposes easily inside the body, making development difficult.
These new treatments are certain to be costly, even though both Kentucky BioProcessing and Tekmira have received tens of millions of dollars in financing from the U.S. Department of Defense to develop new drugs. Expensive drugs will be beyond the reach of people in impoverished parts of West Africa where Ebola is now wreaking havoc.
Third, there is the ethical question of who should receive the scarce treatments. If there is only a limited supply of the drugs, only a limited number of people will be able to receive them.