Three leading experts on the Ebola virus said Wednesday that experimental drugs should be provided to Africa, and that if the deadly virus was rampant in Western countries it would be "highly likely" that authorities would give people access to the medications..
A decision to allow two American health workers infected in Liberia to have access to an experimental treatment — while dozens of African doctors and nurses have perished — has ignited a controversy over the ethics of the decision.
The latest figures show that 1,711 people in West Africa have been diagnosed with the disease and 932 have died. Guinea has suffered the most deaths, 363, followed by 286 in Sierra Leone and 282 in Liberia.
Nigerian Health Minister Onyebuchi Chukwu told journalists that Nigerian authorities had contacted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a bid to get access to the experimental drug that Americans Dr. Kent Brantly and hygienist Nancy Writebol were given.
Calls to make the drug available in Africa have ignited controversy, with some critics citing previous cases when pharmaceutical companies tested drugs on people in developing countries, which harmed people.
With a roughly 55 percent mortality rate in the current outbreak, experts say the drug might kill people who otherwise would have survived. But for others, the ethical issue is that Africans, in particular at-risk health workers, should be given the same right to refuse or accept the treatment that Brantly and Writebol were offered.
The call for steps to allow African governments to make their own choices on the drugs call came in a joint statement from Peter Piot, who co-discovered the Ebola virus in 1976 and is director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; professor David L. Heymann of the Chatham House Center on Global Health Security; and professor Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust.
They said a Hamburg virologist who pricked herself with an Ebola-infected needle in Hamburg five years ago had been given access to an experimental drug and didn't fall ill. "She chose to take the vaccine. We expect it is a risk we would take if one of us were exposed to Ebola. 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," the statement said.
On Twitter, some Africans have been critical of the decision to provide the drug, untested on humans, to Brantly and Writebol, but not to offer Africans the same right.
"Americans are just wicked and selfish. Secret serum shows up as soon as two of their people get it. What is humanity?" tweeted Uwani Aliyu, a makeup artist from Abuja, Nigeria.
A Congolose Twitter user with the handle MrsBasabose wrote: "6 days ago Dr Sheik Umar Khan, a heroic African who treated 100 Ebola patients died after being infected. The American was 'cured.' ''
Kgopedi oa Namane from South Africa added, "So the secret serum used to cure 2 Americans from Ebola is too secret to reach Africans dying like flies? JustAsking."
How fast could more doses of the drug be produced?
"Two months," said Charles Arntzen, a professor at the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, who has collaborated for the past 15 years with Mapp Biopharmaceutical, the small San Diego company that produced the experimental serum given to the two Americans. "Maybe they could do it in a month. If they were (already) planning on it, I'm sure they could produce 10,000 doses in a month."
Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was more cautious in an interview on CNN. "It is not easy to make this serum," he said. "It would take months to produce a significant amount more."
Only one place has been approved by the U.S. government to produce ZMapp, the cocktail of three antibodies injected into Brantly and Writebol, who contracted the deadly disease in Liberia. That is Kentucky BioProcessing in Owensboro, Kentucky.
A spokeswoman, Maura Payne, said in an email that "KBP is working closely with Mapp, various government agencies and other parties to increase production of ZMapp, but this process will take several months."
Contributing: Washington Post