MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — Liberia announced Monday that it would soon receive doses of an experimental Ebola drug and give it to two sick doctors, making them the first Africans to receive some of the scarce treatment in a spiraling outbreak.
The U.S. government confirmed that it had put Liberian officials in touch with the maker of ZMapp, and referred additional questions to Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. In a statement, the California-based company said that in responding to a request from an unidentified West African country, it had run out of its supply of the treatment.
The news comes as anger is growing over the fact that the only people to receive the experimental treatment so far have been Westerners: two Americans and a Spaniard, all of whom were evacuated to their home countries from Liberia.
Late Monday, the World Health Organization said 1,013 people had died in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Authorities have recorded 1,848 suspected, probable or confirmed cases of the disease, the U.N. health agency said. The updated WHO tally includes figures from Aug. 7-9 when 52 more people died and 69 more were infected.
There is no Ebola vaccine or treatment available, but there are several in development besides ZMapp. That treatment is so new that it hasn’t been tested for safety or effectiveness in humans. And the company has said it would take months to produce even modest quantities.
It was unclear how much of the treatment would be sent to Liberia.
“The U.S. Government assisted in connecting the Government of Liberia with the manufacturer,” the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement. “Since the drug was shipped for use outside the U.S., appropriate export procedures had to be followed.”
The Liberian statement, posted on the presidency’s website, said it was also receiving an experimental treatment from the World Health Organization. It was unclear if this was also referring to ZMapp or another treatment.
In the past few weeks, the experimental drug was given to two American aid workers diagnosed with the disease while working at a hospital that treated Ebola patients. On Monday, officials in Spain disclosed that the treatment was also given to a Spanish missionary priest who fell ill while working in Liberia.
The Americans are said to be improving, but there’s no way to know whether the drug helped, or if they are getting better on their own, as others have. Around 40 percent of those infected with Ebola are surviving the current outbreak.
But some called for the untested drug to be given to Africans, too. The outbreak was first identified in March in Guinea, but it likely started months earlier. It has since spread to neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone, and possibly to Nigeria.
“There’s no reason to try this medicine on sick white people and to ignore blacks,” said Marcel Guilavogui, a pharmacist in Conakry, Guinea. “We understand that it’s a drug that’s being tested for the first time and could have negative side effects. But we have to try it in blacks too.”
Some are using Twitter to demand that the drug be made available.
“We can’t afford to be passive while many more die,” said Aisha Dabo, a Senegalese-Gambian journalist who was tweeting using the hashtag “GiveUsTheSerum”on Monday. “That’s why we raise our voice for the world to hear us.”
The ethical dilemmas involved prompted the U.N. health agency to consult Monday with ethicists, infectious disease experts, patient representatives and the Doctors Without Borders group. Most participants in the closed teleconference were from developed countries, but Uganda and Senegal were represented. The World Health Organization said it would discuss the results of the meeting at a press conference on Tuesday.
Companies can provide experimental drugs on a “compassionate use” basis, usually after they have been fully tested in humans. The Food and Drug Administration approves such uses in the U.S., but has no authority overseas. Ultimately, the companies alone decide whether or not to share their products.