Today, the World Health Organization concludes a two-day meeting to discuss a radical idea: bringing a vaccine into the field without having tested its effectiveness.
Traditional means of containing Ebola — such as isolating people who are infected with the disease and tracing the people they’ve come into contact with — aren’t working fast enough to get ahead of the epidemic. So the question is: Will giving an experimental vaccine to willing volunteers help contain the disease or put people at greater risk?
Dr. Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute at Oxford, says the urgency of the Ebola situation has led to throwing traditional timelines “out the window.”
Perhaps the announcement of a confirmed case in the United States will nudge them along. The situation in Liberia should be enough to make this almost a no-brainer, as the number of infected there are doubling every three weeks.
Of course, it’s not a no brainer because the gamble is with human life. A public health ethicist says the Liberian situation greatly changes things, however:
Nancy Kass is a public health ethicist at Johns Hopkins University. She says that the best way to study a new vaccine is to test it against a placebo. But the situation in West Africa complicates that decision.
“The problem is that all of our norms change when thousands of new cases of Ebola are happening all the time and 50 to 60 percent of these people are dying. That changes the rules about what we have to lose when we try something new.”