Bioethics Blogs

Is it Ethical to give Ebola-Sufferers a Placebo?

Recently prominent bioethicists have voiced disagreement over whether it could be ethical to test experimental Ebola vaccines in placebo-controlled randomized trials.  Such trials would involve taking a group of people currently infected with Ebola and randomizing half of them to an arm that receives the experimental vaccine (plus, let us assume, the best current standard of care for Ebola), and the other half of them to an arm that receives a placebo instead of the vaccine (plus the same standard of care).  

The main worry with these trials is that it is unethical to give Ebola-sufferers a placebo when an experimental vaccine is available that holds the prospect of benefit. (The prospect of benefit is typically inferred from success in trials with animals; at least one experimental vaccine, ZMapp, has showed notable efficacy at preventing deadly disease in macaque monkeys inoculated with a virulent strain of Ebola.)  As a prominent group of bioethicists recently pointed out, conventional care for Ebola “does not much affect clinical outcomes,” resulting in a mortality rate as high as 70%.  “When conventional care means such a high probability of death,” they continue, “it is problematic to insist on randomizing patients to [a placebo arm] when the intervention arm holds out at least the possibility of benefit.”  Moreover, they insist, “none of us would consent to be randomized in such circumstances.” 

Perhaps many will share the sense that there is something morally problematic, perhaps even cruel, about giving Ebola-sufferers a placebo when there is a potentially beneficial vaccine available.   What this line of thought misses, however, is that as of right now, experimental vaccines for Ebola are not widely available: there are many more people who could benefit from these vaccines than available doses of vaccine.

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.