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by
Bridget Johnson

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August 6, 2014 - 4:49 pm

President Obama hedged on an ethics question about whether Africans should receive the same experimental drug that put two Americans stricken with Ebola on the path to recovery, telling reporters at the conclusion of the U.S.-African Leaders Summit that efforts to rein in the disease should focus on prevention instead.

But as the epidemic grows within West Africa, the Arab world saw its first possible Ebola death as a businessman in his 40s returning to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, from Sierra Leone died two days after being admitted to King Fahd Hospital with symptoms of viral hemorrhagic fever.

Saudi Arabia had already banned pilgrims from the affected countries from making the hajj to Mecca. Arab News reported that officials there retraced the businessman’s steps and are now monitoring people he contacted before checking into the hospital.

Two American healthcare workers who were aiding Ebola victims in Liberia were gravely ill before receiving the experimental serum, ZMapp, which had only been tested on animals by San Diego company Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. They are now recovering at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.

“I think we’ve got to let the science guide us,” Obama said at a press conference this evening when asked if the FDA should fast-track approval and perhaps save lives in Africa as well. “And you know, I don’t think all the information is in on whether this drug is helpful.”

Nigerian officials are reportedly interested in acquiring the drug. The doctor who treated American Patrick Sawyer, a Liberian government official who died in the country after flying into Lagos, is now ill with Ebola and eight other cases are confirmed or probable.

The World Health Organization announced today it would convene a panel of medical ethicists next week to discuss if the drug should be used on others and who should receive it.

“We are in an unusual situation in this outbreak. We have a disease with a high fatality rate without any proven treatment or vaccine,” Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, assistant director-general at the WHO said in a statement. “We need to ask the medical ethicists to give us guidance on what the responsible thing to do is.”

The death toll was 932 as of Monday, according to the WHO tally.

“What we do know is that the ebola virus, both currently and in the past, is controllable if you have a strong public health infrastructure in place. And the countries that have been affected are the first to admit that what’s happened here is that there public health systems have been overwhelmed. They weren’t able to identify and then isolate cases quickly enough,” Obama said. “You did not have a strong trust relationship between some of the communities that were affected and public health workers. As a consequence, it spread more rapidly than has been typical with the periodic ebola outbreaks that have occurred previously.”

“But despite obviously the extraordinary pain and hardship of the families and persons who have been affected, and despite the fact that we have to take this very seriously, it is important to remind ourselves this is not an airborne disease. This is one that can be controlled and contained very effectively if we use the right protocols.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention today announced a “surge” response to the rapidly spreading outbreak.

“CDC now is taking a more active role, and has been invited by WHO to provide leadership on the technical front. The CDC has activated its Emergency Operations Center to its highest response level,” the agency said. Its highest travel warning remains in effect for Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria. Fifty additional “disease control experts” will be in the region within 30 days, the CDC added.

“The bottom line with Ebola is we know how to stop it: traditional public health. Find patients, isolate and care for them; find their contacts; educate people; and strictly follow infection control in hospitals. Do those things with meticulous care and Ebola goes away,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden. “To keep America safe, healthcare workers should isolate and evaluate people who have returned from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone in the past 21 days and have fever or other symptoms suggestive of Ebola. We will save lives in West Africa and protect ourselves at home by stopping Ebola at the source.”

Though Congress is in recess, Frieden will testify tomorrow at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations.

Obama said “we’re surging not just U.S. resources, but we have reached out to European partners and partners from other countries, working with the WHO.”

“Let’s get all the health workers that we need on the ground. Let’s help to bolster the systems that they already have in place. Let’s nip as early as possible any additional outbreaks of the disease,” he said. ”And then during the course of that process, I think it’s entirely appropriate for us to see if there are additional drugs or medical treatments that can improve the survivability of what is a very deadly and obviously brutal disease.”

The president added that the administration would focus “on the public health approach right now because we know how to do that, but I will continue to seek information about what we’re learning with respect to these drugs going forward.”

“If it seems to be effective, would you support fast-tracking its approval in the United States?” a reported asked.

“I think it’s premature for me to say that because I don’t have enough information. I don’t have enough data right now to offer an opinion on that,” he responded, echoing similar noncommittal responses in recent days from administration officials.

A statement at the conclusion of the summit issued by the White House said the leaders in attendance — minus the presidents of Liberia and Sierra Leone, who stayed home to deal with the crisis — “committed to redoubling efforts to control the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa and, critically, working together to share expertise, as Africa moves towards the realization of the African Center for Disease Control and Prevention.”

“This is a — a big problem, as you know,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said at a townhall in Stuttgart, Germany, today when asked if Ebola is on the Pentagon’s radar. “We have to protect our people. And we will. But where we can be of assistance, we will, and we are.”

Bridget Johnson is a veteran journalist whose news articles and opinion columns have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe. Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor at The Hill, where she wrote The World from The Hill column on foreign policy. Previously she was an opinion writer and editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. She is an NPR contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, Politico and more, and has myriad television and radio credits as a commentator. Bridget is Washington Editor for PJ Media.
Top Rated Comments   
President says he's still focusing on preventive efforts as virus reportedly spreads to the Arab world.
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Hmm... could be a great way to 'remove' the islamic problems currently plaguing the world...

A plague to cure a plague?

Just thinkin' aloud folks.

Here's one aye vote...

11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
Funny how a 9 person company like Mapp Pharma would happen to have a serum for ebola instead of something more lucrative like cancer. Hypothetically, if I were weaponizing something like oh, ebola, I'd make sure that my side had an antidote first.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
If whatever you do you're going to be called a 'racist' then it's a really easy call. Just do the right thing regardless.

And considering the 90% mortality rate of Ebola, giving people access to an experimental treatment is pretty obviously the right thing to do.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (19)
All Comments   (19)
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He's right. Let the science do what it needs to do before you hand it out. The reality is the vaccine they got was very experimental and there were only the two doses ready for use.

11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
I got to somewhat agree with Obama on this one...we don't know if the serum is effective yet. We need more data. If the serum is effective, I imagine it will be fast-tracked...even if there are some serious side-effects. After all, the mortality rate is so high, bad side-effects are better than death.

Also, as a treatment for a communicable disease, there's a two-fold reason for fast-tracking. It helps the immediate victim, which is certainly a good thing. But somewhat more importantly, it reduces the number of vectors that spread the disease. For example, I complaint about Jenny McCarthy's anti-vaccine crusade not because I'm particularly worried about the health of her little rug-rats...I'm worried that they will become carriers and transmitters of a contagion and endanger others. Even if there are side-effects, the virtue of reducing transmission warrants the treatment.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
is that idiotic, to rein in the disease focus on prevention.

Right, let them all die with a treatment available, because you want to go to prevention.

But amazing how 2 Americans get to use a drug that a WHO spokesman should not be used becasuse it hadn't gone through all trials, also pretty stupid.

11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
President Obama could ask President Bush to act as an envoy and make some formal and official statements about combating the disease. Bush has enormous credibility and stature in Africa, especially in matters of public health.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
Correct me if I'm wrong, but it's my understanding that Ebola is pretty much always fatal, and there is no known cure. So if I contracted a disease for which there is no known cure, and someone offered me an experimental treatment I can't imagine saying no. Should the FDA "fast-track" it? Are we talking about having the FDA approve the drug for widespread use forever based on one or two successes? Of course not. But why can't the African governments and doctors use this drug whether or not the American FDA has approved it? Those people are going to die anyway! You can't tell me that the FDA has any authority in any country other than the U.S. I think it should be up to the patient and the docs whether or not they want to be part of the "experiment."

As for Richard's comment below, on Monday I read an article by Michael Savage, PhD, an epidemiologist and talk radio host, who said this whole Ebola outbreak seems pretty fishy to him too. Apparently the pharmaceutical companies have been reluctant to do much research into Ebola cures and vaccines, because of the relative rarity of Ebola. Not much point in a public company spending billions to research and develop a drug and get FDA approval for it if almost nobody will ever need it. But a small private company, apparently nine people, think they have found a cure, but can't get FDA approval to do human trials (and can't find a large number of Ebola patients to try it on - I mean, I sure as heck would not agree to being infected with Ebola to TRY an experimental vaccine) so suddenly we have a big Ebola outbreak in the vast third world hellhole that is Africa and, Ta-Da! The CDC is using their new experimental drug on the WHITE medical people who got sick treating the black Africans. How convenient...
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
According to articles I have read, Ebola is spread primarily by bodily fluids. Once someone has died of it, the victim's family kisses the body and washes it to prepare it for burial and thus contracts the disease themselves. Public health officials who try to prevent this contact are regarded as foreigners interfering in their culture and customs and are ignored.

Given Obama's claims of kinship to the African people and his great love of all things African, and Africa's alleged love for him, he could do a great deal of good in this situation by personally travelling the Ebola-afflicted area and holding large public rallies telling the locals to handle their Ebola-afflicted relatives in the ways that won't spread the disease. He could even demonstrate the proper procedures himself. If he's half as popular and influential as he thinks he is, his example would do a great deal to beat Ebola back.

An even bigger step he could take would be to volunteer to try the ZMapp treatment of Ebola. If he were one of the people being treated, he would prove that hapless African peasants weren't being used as guinea pigs to test an unproven drug: a top American leader, who happened to be partly African, was taking the drug to help demonstrate its effectiveness. That should remove all taint of racism from the testing process.

Of course it's still very early on in the recovery of the two missionaries. They may yet take a turn for the worse and succumb to the Ebola. Obama may not value the increase in street cred quite enough to be a guinea pig himself. Still, his personal participation in the testing of the drug would go a long way to disproving the notion that the drug company was looking to test this new drug on ignorant Africans who wouldn't be missed if the drug failed.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
The opinion of President Obama is irrelevant in this case. The governments of the countries with Ebola get to decide what is legal in their own countries. Seems to me that ZMapp should be approved for use on healthcare workers treating Ebola patients. They understand the risk of experimental treatment vs. risk of Ebola.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
No matter what Obama will make the decision that kills the most good people, aids the most evil people and brings the highest level of disrepute on our nation.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
Give his cronies a cut to get on the fast track.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'm sorry, it's a stupid idea. Even as it is right now Africans think that Westerners have come to poison and kill their loved ones under the guise of fighting Ebola. Using a drug that hasn't been through proper trials means actually really-really using them as guinea pigs. Better to use untested drugs on white people. Their families won't grab machetes or start a guerilla war over it.
11 weeks ago
11 weeks ago Link To Comment
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