SciTech

Pugwash: ZMapp distribution is debated

Credit: Alison Chiu/Advertising Staff Member Credit: Alison Chiu/Advertising Staff Member

The recent Ebola outbreak was as much of a shock to medicine as it was to political discussion. ZMapp, the highly experimental drug developed by Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. and tested in monkeys, is the only known combatant to the disease. According to an article in USA Today, 100 percent of monkeys in a Canadian study were cured of Ebola after being treated with ZMapp.

However, just because we have a drug doesn’t mean we have a definite cure. In total, seven doses of ZMapp have been given to humans; out of these seven, two did not survive — a Liberian doctor and a Spanish priest. In hindsight, ZMapp is not a fully viable cure — or even treatment — for Ebola. Although it worked in monkeys, ZMapp alone cannot sustain humans for certain.
Without having had any human trials, was it right to give that drug out? What does this say about American-funded medication? Is it our responsibility to distribute what we know or save our own? Here’s what a few Carnegie Mellon students think.

When we were first learning about AIDS, or GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, later Gay Residual Immune Disorder) as it was called at the time, a group of scientists went to Africa to collect data and perform a few experiments. The experiments were unsuccessful, but the data that was brought back helped form the next 10 years of AIDS research. Is obtaining useful data worth risking the health of others? If a disease is fatal, does testing create any risk at all?

There are three options: We can give this drug to Americans and collect data, we can give this drug to west Africans and collect data, or we can do nothing. The social implications of each option are enormous. If the drug works and we try to keep it in the United States, the headlines could read “Western life comes first: Ebola drug to be kept in U.S.,” and both U.S.-based drug companies and the United States itself lose credibility as a foreign power. If we keep it in the United States but the drug doesn’t work, nothing happens. If the drug works and we take it to Africa, the press is good — but if the drug doesn’t work, and we take it to Africa, the headlines could read “Africa as U.S. guinea pig: U.S. pharma to start human trials on Africans,” and the U.S. not only loses credibility, but is no longer welcome in many foreign markets.

Ultimately, though, if we do nothing in the event of an outbreak, the implications are more than just social. A public distrust of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is less of a concern than any idea that science no longer deserves funding. A world where scientists fail to produce a perfect solution is much better than a world where scientists can no longer receive sufficient funding because businesses, venturists, and agencies think that even when the scientific community is funded, it is too insular to share its findings. The impact of doing nothing is actively harmful to the future of science funding: No action now could leave the possibility of action in the future at risk.