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Unproven ebola drugs deemed ethical by the World Health Organization

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Following outbreak, WHO okays experimental drug use to treat infected

Charles Williams/Flickr

Officials from the World Health Organization today said that experimental medications, like the one currently being used to treat some patients in the West Africa outbreak of the deadly ebola virus, are ethically sound. A panel of 12 doctors, professors, and health advocates discussed the matter yesterday, and decided that using experimental treatments or vaccines could be beneficial. That's as long as potential patients know what they're getting into, and that any data resulting from the tests is shared with the scientific community, the group said.

"Ebola outbreaks can be contained using available interventions like early detection and isolation, contact tracing and monitoring, and adherence to rigorous procedures of infection control," the WHO said in a statement. "However, a specific treatment or vaccine would be a potent asset to counter the virus."

Canada to the rescue

So far, that's been experimental serum called ZMapp co-developed by a pair of US and Canadian drug makers (as well as the US government and Canada's Public Health Agency), which has been used to treat some patients, despite not undergoing clinical trials with humans or gaining regulatory approval. Supplies of the drug have also dwindled due to difficulties producing it, though Canada today said it would donate 800 to 1,000 doses of the drug to be used in aid efforts. A separate drug called TKM-Ebola, which is also developed in Canada, could end up being used as well after getting a nod from the US Food and Drug Administration last week to restart human testing of the drug on those who are already infected.

Even with the decision, the WHO says it still needs to look into several other aspects dealing with experimental medications and therapies in response to the outbreak. That includes determining how and where the drugs are distributed, how to capture data from any use in the field, as well as how to "prioritize the use" of those drugs.

According to the latest figures from the WHO, this outbreak has infected 1,848 people, killing 1,013 — making it the worst bout with ebola in recorded history. Most of the cases have been in Sierra Leone, while the most deaths have occurred in Guinea. Health officials have called for more public awareness of how the disease is spread, while warning local leaders that more needed to be done in order to stop the disease from getting out of control.