Bioethics Blogs

Ebola Pandemonium: Urging Cautious Approaches in Desperate Contexts

Lisa Schwartz describes the necessary conditions for the ethical provision of experimental Ebola drugs and vaccines.

The sudden outpouring of investigational drugs and vaccines in response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa is laudable. However, desperate emergencies do not mean we can forego caution. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease a Public Health Emergency on August 8, 2014 and struck an ethics committee that, on August 12, advised it is permissible to distribute experimental drugs and vaccines in response to the outbreak – even drugs and vaccines as yet untested in humans.

I believe the WHO was right to do this; speed is what is needed right now.  However, the WHO was also rightly cautious in advising that these experimental interventions (for treatment or for prevention) should be used with care and under the vigilant scrutiny of, at the very least, observational research. Someone needs to be taking account of the results of these vast experiments, otherwise the risks taken by Ebola affected communities will be for naught.

Canada has offered an experimental vaccine, called VSV-EBOV, and Canadian based research laboratories have played a major role in the development of other early, untested medications – including the much talked about ZMapp. This is something that politicians say we ought to be very proud of, and so we should. But we must also be aware that there will likely be many such offers pouring in from experimental labs all over the world, mainly for the best reasons, but always with a mixture of hope and dread.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.