Ebola virus: Obama says it is too early to send experimental drug to Africa as WHO considers if outbreak is 'global health emergency'

The experimental drug Zmapp has been used to treat two US aid workers

Heather Saul
Thursday 07 August 2014 08:52 BST
Liberian nurses carry the body of an Ebola victim from a house for burial in the Banjor Community on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia 6 August 2014.
Liberian nurses carry the body of an Ebola victim from a house for burial in the Banjor Community on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia 6 August 2014. (EPA)

The US President Barack Obama has said it is too soon to send an experimental drug used to treat the deadly Ebola virus to West Africa, as experts meet to decide whether the outbreak warrants declaring a global health emergency.

Two US aid workers striken by the virus were administered ZMapp in Liberia ahead of their evacuation to America for treatment. Their condition appears to be improving, but it is unclear if the drug is directly responsible.

ZMapp is a drug made from antibodies produced in a lab that has never gone through human trials or been approved by the US’s FDA Food and Drug Administration. Producing ZMapp is also slow process as antibodies have to be produced on specially modified tobacco leaves.

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) latest figures show 932 deaths across four countries have been blamed on the illness, with 1,711 reported cases. In Saudi Arabia, a man suspected of contracting Ebola during a recent business trip to Sierra Leone also died early on Wednesday in Jeddah, the Health Ministry announced.

"I don't think all the information is in on whether this drug is helpful,” said Mr Obama.

"The Ebola virus both currently and in the past is controllable if you have a strong public health infrastructure in place."

He added: "We're focusing on the public health approach right now, but I will continue to seek information about what we're learning about these drugs going forward."

Mr Obama’s remarks came as the WHO convened a two-day meeting in Geneva to determine whether the epidemic constitutes a "Public Health Emergency of International Concern" and to consider steps to help overstretched emergency organisations.

They will also ask medical experts to explore the use of experimental treatments for Ebola next week.

Meanwhile, in an effort to contain the spread of the virus, Liberia deployed the army to implement controls and isolate severely affected communities, in an operation code-named "White Shield".

The Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf also declared a state of emergency in the country, warning that Liberia needs "extraordinary measures for the very survival of our state and for the protection of the lives of our people".

Many hospitals and clinics have been forced to close across Liberia, often because health workers are afraid of contracting the virus or because of abuse by locals who think the disease is a government conspiracy.

"Ignorance and poverty, as well as entrenched religious and cultural practices, continue to exacerbate the spread of the disease," President Sirleaf said in a statement.

Nigeria’s Health Minister has said Ebola is now a national emergency after five more cases were confirmed in the country on Wednesday and a second person died of the disease.

Some major airlines, such as British Airways and Emirates, have halted flights to affected countries, while many expatriates are leaving, according to officials.

Ebola, a highly contagious haemorrhagic fever, kills more than half of the people who contract it. Victims suffer from fever, vomiting, diarrhoea and internal and external bleeding.

Additional reporting by agencies

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