In light of the worst Ebola outbreak in human history, which has killed more than 500 people in less than six months, many doctors outside of West Africa have argued that the medical community should begin administering some of the many experimental therapies, which they have been developing, to the many Ebola patients in the region. Other medical professionals, such as Dr. David Heymann, a professor of infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, disagree completely with the notion, arguing that attempting to experiment on sick individuals would be simply “unethical.”
Jeremy Ferrar, a professor of tropical medicine and director of The Welcome Trust charity, was one of the first doctors on the ground in Guinea to recommend the use of the many experimental options available to fight the virus. He argued that as it stands right now the only thing he and the rest of his medical staff can do is sit back and provide the afflicted with a “tepid sponging” while promising to bury the patient “nicely.”
Ferrar touched upon issues of race, claiming that if “450 people” were “dying of a viral hemorrhagic fever” in western countries like the United States, then “it would just be unacceptable.” He stated that it is also “unacceptable in West Africa.” Ferrar uses an incident from 2009 to illustrate his argument. A German researcher pricked her finger with a needle contaminated with Ebola. He points out that, far from giving her only a “tepid sponging,” the medical staff “moved heaven and earth” to save her, even securing an emergency release in order to give her the experimental vaccine that had been the object of their studies and resulted in her survival. Ferrar argues that if doctors could do all of that for just one researcher, then they should also be able use the many experimental therapies that exist today to do the same for the whole of West Africa.
Ferrar’s convictions are not based purely in fantasy or on antiquated research. In fact just this year the FDA gave a Canadian company’s Ebola vaccine a “fast track designation” in order to expedite its testing and approval, citing the extraordinary preliminary findings which showed that the therapy cured 100 percent of all non-human primates as well as guinea pigs of the Ebola virus. That drug is currently being reviewed by the FDA and it will likely take some time before the treatment begins its first clinical trials.
Dr. Heinz Feldmann, an Ebola expert and head of the laboratory of virology at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Rocky Mountain Laboratories, certainly shares Ferrar’s viewpoints, but after talking things over with colleagues who were currently treating those infected with the Ebola virus, he determined that experimental intervention would likely do more harm than good. He cited the highly suspicious locals who were fermenting rumors about medical personnel.
Many people of Guinea blame the doctor for bringing the disease to their country. Feldman explains that his colleague believes that anything out of the ordinary, especially “an injection,” would fuel those rumors further, turning more of the local population against the medical personnel who are trying to help them. So, in the end, both doctors, Feldman and Heymann, ultimately agree, saying that “as bad as it sounds,” he continued “I have the feeling” that the Ebola patients as well as their caregivers will “have to find a way to end this one without” being given an “experimental therapy.”
By Andrew Waddell