Georgetown Experts Hold Teleconference on Ebola

August 12, 2014 — Days after the World Health Organization declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to be an international emergency — and hours after the organization declared it ethical to use unproven medicines to treat or prevent the disease — experts from Georgetown Law and the Georgetown University Medical Center hosted a teleconference to discuss the legal and ethical issues.

What obligations do countries have when facing an epidemic? What if the drugs developed to treat the disease have never been tested on humans? And, with the drugs in short supply, who should be given them? 

More than two dozen reporters from the Associated Press, Bloomberg News, the Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, the New York Times, Reuters and more called in to hear experts discuss these topics at the event, which was organized by the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law.

Serving on the panel were Professor Larry Gostin, faculty director of the O’Neill Institute; Institute Associate Ana S. Ayala; and Dr. Jesse Goodman and Dr. Kevin Donovan, both of Georgetown University Medical Center. O’Neill Institute Deputy Director Susan C. Kim served as moderator.

At the time of the August 12 panel, the outbreak had killed more than a thousand Africans and infected hundreds more. Two of the three people reportedly given an untested treatment for Ebola (the American health workers), were still living; the third, a Spanish priest in his 70s, had died, panelists noted.

“There needs to be at least minimal safety testing before they administer experimental drugs to any patients,” Gostin said, noting that the death rate for Ebola currently stands at about 55 percent and that some drugs can be extremely toxic. In the case of the recent announcement, the WHO committee was talking about just a few doses of an investigational treatment. “The really important thing is to ramp up treatments, to evaluate them well, and then to determine how we ethically prioritize the allocation of those treatments,” Gostin added.

Ayala continued the discussion of the WHO’s International Health Regulations, setting forth obligations for states facing public health risks. But in this case, “we are talking about countries that suffer from poverty, poor public health infrastructure and civil unrest,” she said. “What has been reported so far is that the public health systems in these countries have been ill prepared to stop the spread of disease in its early stages.”  

A question-and-answer session followed. To read “The Ebola Epidemic: A Global Health Emergency,” co-authored by Gostin this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, click here.

To listen to audio of the briefing, click here

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