More than 100 scientists and industry executives will convene this week at the WHO’s headquarters Geneva, Switzerland, in response to a spiraling Ebola crisis. Their urgent mission will be to comb through the world’s stock of experimental Ebola drugs and vaccines and agree on a plan for clinical trials.
The Sept. 4 to Sept. 5 meeting comes about a month after the WHO said that while it had a “moral duty” to conduct clinical trials, treating Ebola patients with drugs never previously tested on humans would be ethical given the severity of the crisis.
Experimental Ebola drugs – though still wildcards – have been touted as possible miracle workers in the international fight to quell the outbreak, the worst on record. The epidemic has subsumed Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia, and it has appeared in Nigeria, Senegal, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
ZMapp, one of the drugs before the WHO, cured all 18 monkeys that had been infected with Ebola as part of a recent study. Even so, anecdotal evidence of its effectiveness in humans is inconclusive: it has never been tested on humans but was given to seven Ebola patients, two of which have lived, and two of which have died.
On Tuesday, U.S. health officials announced a $25 million contract with ZMapp’s supplier, Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc., to begin testing the drug, as well as to jumpstart its production, as supplies are currently exhausted. The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) will also begin clinical trials of an Ebola vaccine next week, and trials of additional vaccines are set for the fall.
Meanwhile, the WHO announced last week that it has drafted a broad roadmap to “dramatically scale up the international response” to the crisis and halt Ebola’s spread within six to nine months.
Health workers have been highly critical of what they say is a lackluster international response to the emergency: after a U.N. meeting on Tuesday, Doctors without Boarders president Joanne Liu excoriated the leaders of unaffected nations for scrambling to secure their own borders against the virus, but failing to sending sufficient aid and experts into the crisis zones.
“Six months into the worst Ebola epidemic in history, the world is losing the battle to contain it,” Liu said, calling on able countries to send bio-defense teams to West Africa. “We cannot cut off the affected countries and hope this epidemic will simply burn out. To put out this fire, we must run into the burning building.”
Liu told the U.N. much of what has been done so far to stop the virus is not working. “Riots are breaking out,” she said. “Isolation centers are overwhelmed. Health workers on the front lines are becoming infected and are dying in shocking numbers. Others have fled in fear, leaving people without care for even the most common illnesses. Entire health systems have crumbled.”
The U.N. meanwhile warned on Tuesday that the quarantines are expected to cause a food crisis in West Africa, as restrictions on movement in and out of afflicted communities are affecting food supplies, and as panic buying is jacking up the prices of ever-scare staples.
More than 1,500 people have died in West Africa – almost half of the some 3,500 cases confirmed since the disease was identified in March. The WHO predicts that around 20,000 more people will fall ill with the virus before its spread can be stopped.