A Spanish missionary priest died today in Madrid after being treated for Ebola as international officials debate the ethics of using a new experimental drug.
The World Health Organization, the health branch of the United Nations, determined today it is ethical to use unproven Ebola drugs under certain conditions to combat the massive outbreak in West Africa. So far, 1,848 people have been diagnosed with the disease, and 1,013 people have died. The virus was first detected in Guinea in March and has since spread to Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Nigeria.
The question the WHO did not answer, however, is how to decide who gets the very limited supply of drugs.
The Spanish missionary, 75-year-old Miguel Parajes, died at Madrid’s Carlos III Hospital. His body will be cremated on Wednesday to diminish further risks to public health, according to the hospital. Parajes was working with Catholic Aid Group San Juan de Dios, helping treat Ebola victims in Liberia, when he fell ill. The Spanish government evacuated him last week.
The priest, as well as two American missionaries who are reportedly improving, received doses of a serum called ZMapp which has never been tested on humans. The San Diego-based company that makes the serum reported yesterday that its supplies are “exhausted,” though two doses are reportedly headed to Liberia today to use on two infected doctors, the first Africans to be treated with the drug.
Though the WHO determined that using experimental drugs was ethical, the panel said a “more detailed analysis and discussion” was needed to decide who should have access to the extremely limited supply of experimental treatments. The antibodies used to make ZMapp are grown inside tobacco plants, then extracted and purified. U.S. officials have estimated it would take two or three months to produce only a small amount, unless a way to speed the process is found.
Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, an assistant director-general at the WHO, said some companies are speeding up trials of a new Ebola vaccine, but they don’t expect preliminary safety data until the end of the year. Other drugs and vaccines are being developed, but haven’t been fully tested in humans.
Meanwhile, West African nations are fighting the outbreak, and many Africans have expressed frustration at their inability to get drugs to treat victims.
The Ivory Coast, which shares borders with Liberia and Guinea, has banned direct flights from either country and said it planned to increase border health inspections. Most airlines flying in and out of Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, have suspended flights, and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf suspended all travel for executive branch officials for one month.
In Atlanta, the two American missionaries being treated for the disease are reportedly doing well. Nancy Writebol’s son told NBC’s Today show that doctors expect his mother to recover.