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Ebola Serum Politics - Pt 1: Hundreds of Africans Die But Two Whites Get The Ebola Serum — Why?: The Ethics of Drug Distribution

Illustration provided by SouthernBreeze.
(Click to see full-sized image)
Illustration provided by SouthernBreeze.
By Arthur L. Caplan
What should happen if a massive viral outbreak appears out of nowhere and the only possible treatment is an untested drug? And who should receive it? The two American missionaries who contracted the almost-always-fatal virus in West Africa were given access to an experimental drug cocktail called ZMapp. It consists of immune-boosting monoclonal antibodies that were extracted from mice exposed to bits of Ebola DNA. Now in isolation at an Atlanta hospital, they appear to be doing well.

It’s an opportunity the 900 Africans who’ve died so far never had. Is there a case to suspend ethical norms if lives might be saved by deploying an experimental drug?

The reasons for different treatment are partly about logistics, partly about economics and, partly about a lack of any standard policy for giving out untested drugs in emergencies. Before this outbreak, ZMapp had only been tested on monkeys. Mapp, the tiny, San Diego based pharmaceutical company that makes the drug stated two years ago: “When administered one hour after infection [with Ebola], all animals survived…Two-thirds of the animals were protected even when the treatment, known as Zmapp, was administered 48 hours after infection.”

Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol were stricken with the ebola  virus while assisting ebola victims in Africa and given an experimental  serum. Both were flown back to the US for further treatment.
Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol were stricken with the ebola
virus while assisting ebola victims in Africa and given an experimental
serum. Both were flown back to the US for further treatment. (Screen
capture from YouTube video)
But privileged humans were always going to be the first ones to try it. ZMapp requires a lot of refrigeration and careful handling, plus close monitoring by experienced doctors and scientists—better to try it at a big urban hospital than in rural West Africa, where no such infrastructure exists.

[...]

But it’s about more than logistics. Drugs based on monoclonal antibodies usually cost a lot—at least tens of thousands of dollars. This is obviously far more than poor people in poor nations can afford to pay; and a tiny company won’t enthusiastically give away its small supply of drug for free. It is likely that if they were going to donate drugs, it would be to people who would command a lot of press attention and, thus, investors and government money for further research—which is to say, not to poor Liberians, Nigerians or Guineans.

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