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WHO backs use of experimental Ebola drug

Wednesday, August 13 08:12:57

People infected in the West African Ebola outbreak can be offered untested drugs, the World Health Organisation said on Tuesday, but the scarcity of supplies has raised questions about who gets priority access to treatment.

Liberia said it planned to treat two infected doctors with an unproven Ebola medicine called ZMapp. They would become the first Africans to receive the drug, which has been given to a Spanish priest who later died and two U.S. aid workers.

The outbreak is the world's largest and deadliest and the U.N. agency last week declared it an international health emergency. The WHO has appealed for funds and medical staff to supplement health care in one of the poorest regions in the world.

So far, 1,013 people have died, the vast majority in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Two have died in Nigeria.

The suffering has been exacerbated by health services that are struggling to cope.

There are no licensed treatments or vaccines for Ebola, a contagious haemorrhagic disease, but several biotech companies and research teams have been working on potential drugs.

The WHO's panel of medical ethicists said several experimental drugs had passed the laboratory and animal study phases of development and should be fast-tracked into clinical trials and made available for compassionate use.

"There was unanimous agreement among the experts that in the special circumstances of this Ebola outbreak it is ethical to offer unregistered interventions as potential treatments or prevention," the WHO's assistant director general Marie-Paule Kieny said after an ethics panel published its guidance.

The WHO meeting was called after ZMapp, made by U.S. biotech company Mapp Biopharmaceutical, was given to the two U.S. aid workers infected in Liberia. Kieny said she had heard reports that the treatment had a swift and dramatic effect on them.

WHO said only around 10 to 12 doses of the drug have been made. Liberia was preparing to treat the two Liberian doctors with ZMapp after U.S. authorities approved its export.

On Tuesday, Canadian Health Minister Rona Ambrose said Canada would donate 800 to 1,000 doses of an experimental Ebola vaccine developed in its government lab to the WHO for use in West Africa.

Canada owns a small quantity of the vaccine and would need four to six months to make a large quantity.

The 75-year-old priest, who the Health Ministry said was also being treated with ZMapp, died in hospital in Madrid on Tuesday. He contracted Ebola in Liberia while working for a non-governmental organisation. It was unclear whether his death shed any light on the efficacy of the drug.

Despite the stir caused by ZMapp, the WHO has said preventive public health measures are crucial to curbing the outbreak.

The ethics panel said it was likely the first tests of these drugs in humans would be conducted over the next two to four months, but cautioned that even after that, and if the trials proved successful, supplies would be limited.

Companies with possible treatments include Tekmira Pharmaceuticals, Biocryst Pharmaceuticals and Siga Technologies.

GlaxoSmithKline and U.S. scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases hope to start a clinical trial of an experimental Ebola vaccine as soon as next month, after promising test results in primates.

Another experimental vaccine from Johnson & Johnson's Crucell unit should enter Phase I clinical trials in late 2015 or early 2016, while Profectus Biosciences is also working with U.S. scientists on another preclinical vaccine.

But with the long lead times and no sign of an end to the outbreak, authorities have been taking their own emergency measures to try to contain it.

Ivory Coast, the economic powerhouse of French-speaking West Africa, on Monday banned air travellers from the three worst-hit countries and ordered its flagship carrier Air Cote d'Ivoire to cease flights to and from them.

Ivory Coast has not registered any cases but is seen as vulnerable given its shared borders with Guinea and Liberia. (Reuters)

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