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MADRID — In a development that raises a host of ethical issues, Spain announced it had obtained a scarce U.S.-made experimental Ebola drug to treat a Spanish missionary priest infected with the killer virus.
So far the experimental drug ZMapp has been used to treat two infected Americans and a Spaniard but no Africans for a hemorrhagic disease that has been ravaging West Africa for months and has killed about 50 percent of those it infects. That news came as medical experts debated the ethical questions surrounding experimental Ebola drugs and vaccines during a teleconference today organized by the U.N. health agency.
There is no known cure or licensed treatment for Ebola, which has killed over 960 people in the current outbreak in West Africa. The World Health Organization has called the Ebola outbreak — which emerged in Guinea in March and has since spread to Liberia, Sierra Leone and possibly Nigeria — an international health emergency and urged nations worldwide to battle the disease.
The drug’s maker, Mapp Pharmaceutical Inc. of San Diego, says on its website that “very little of the drug is currently available” and that it is cooperating with government agencies to increase production as quickly as possible.
Nigerian officials say they had asked U.S. health authorities about getting the Ebola drug last week.
“It certainly looks bad that only three Westerners have gotten the drug while most of the people with Ebola are African,” said Art Caplan, director of bioethics at NYU Langone Medical Center. He said the drugmaker must make its policy for distributing its treatment clear. “I don’t think this scarce resource should just be given to whoever is best connected.”
Still, Caplan said there might be a reasonable explanation for why only Westerners were given the drug, including the need for a sophisticated medical center to administer it and monitor the patient carefully since the drug hasn’t been tested in humans.
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But some Africans said giving the experimental drug only to Westerners was patently unfair.
“There’s no reason to try this medicine on sick white people and to ignore blacks,” said Marcel Guilavogui, a pharmacist in Conakry, Guinea. “We understand that it’s a drug that’s being tested for the first time and that could have negative side effects. But we have to try it in blacks too.”
In Nigeria, which says it has 10 confirmed cases of Ebola, some people began demanding the serum on Twitter. The World Health Organization has not yet confirmed the Nigerian cases.
In a statement, the Spanish Health Ministry said the ZMapp drug was obtained in Geneva this weekend with permission from the company and brought to Madrid to treat Miguel Pajares. The 75-year-old priest was evacuated from Liberia and placed in isolation Thursday at Madrid’s Carlos III Hospital.
Two Americans diagnosed with Ebola in Liberia and evacuated back to the United States have been treated with the drug. One of them, Dr. Kent Brantly, said last week that his condition was improving and the husband of the aid worker being treated with Brantly said the same thing.
The drug is made at Kentucky BioProcessing for Mapp Biopharmaceutical. A spokesman for Kentucky BioProcessing said last week that it complied with a request from the international relief group Samaritan’s Purse and Emory University Hospital in Atlanta and provided a limited amount of the drug. Brantly works for Samaritan’s Purse and both Americans are being cared for now at Emory.
It was not exactly clear how Spain got the drug and authorities refused to comment about any possible costs involved. Geneva University Hospital told The Associated Press it was involved in getting the drug to Spain but would not elaborate.
In its statement, Spain’s Health Ministry said “the medicine was imported from Geneva where there was one dose available in the context of an accord between the laboratory that developed the medicine, WHO and (Doctors Without Borders).”
It said Spain sought the drug under a Spanish law that permits the use of unauthorized medication for patients with a life-threatening illness who cannot be treated satisfactorily by authorized drugs.
At least two countries in West Africa have expressed interest in the drug. Nigeria’s health minister, Onyenbuchi Chukwu, said last week he had asked U.S. health officials about access to it but was told the manufacturer would have to agree. Guinea also said today it would like to have some of the drug.
“Guinean authorities would naturally be interested in having this medicine,” said Alhoussein Makanera Kake, spokesman for the government committee fighting Ebola.
Because the ZMapp drug has never been tested in humans, scientists say there’s no way to tell if it has made any difference to the two American aid workers who have received it.
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The drug is a mixture of three antibodies engineered to recognize Ebola and bind to infected cells so the immune system can kill them. Scientists culled antibodies from laboratory mice and ZMapp’s maker now grows the antibodies in tobacco plants and then purifies them. It takes several months to even produce a modest amount of the drug.
The U.N. health agency planned to hold a news conference Tuesday to discuss the ethics meeting.
In other Ebola developments today:
— A Catholic humanitarian group based in Spain said that another religious worker and colleague of the infected Spanish priest had died in from Ebola in Liberia.
— Nigerian health authorities confirmed another Ebola case today, a nurse who had treated Patrick Sawyer, the Liberian-American who flew into Nigeria and died last month. That brings the locally confirmed Ebola cases in Nigeria to 10, including the two who have died, Sawyer and another nurse. Nigerian authorities now have 177 contacts of Sawyer under surveillance.
— Liberia announced that a donation of protective gear from China was arriving today. A shortage of full-body suits and even clean surgical gloves has left health workers exposed to the virus and prompted some to refuse to treat Ebola patients.
— George Weah, a former FIFA world player of the year from Liberia, has joined the efforts to spread awareness about the disease and how to prevent it. He recorded a song titled “Ebola is real,” and proceeds are going to the Liberian Health Ministry.