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WHO tempers hopes for experimental Ebola drugs

Fact sheets for the Ebola virus are distributed during an awareness campaign in Lagos, Nigeria, Friday, Aug. 15, 2014. The Ebola outbreak that has killed more than 1,000 people in West Africa could last another six months, Doctors Without Borders said Friday, and an aid worker acknowledged that the true death toll is unknown. Meanwhile, new figures released by the World Health Organization showed that Liberia has recorded more deaths — 413 — than any of the other affected countries.

Sunday Alamba/AP

The World Health Organization is warning against "unrealistic expectations" that experimental Ebola drugs – including vaccines offered by Canada – will be able to halt the spread of a West African outbreak whose death toll the agency says it has vastly underestimated.

The public health arm of the United Nations moved to tamp down hope about the efficacy and availability of untested treatments just days after its own ethics panel gave such tools a green light, a decision that accelerated the race to put experimental treatments into the hands of people on the front lines of a crisis that has killed at least 1,145 in four countries.

"Existing supplies of all experimental medicines are either extremely limited or exhausted," the WHO said in a statement Friday. "While many efforts are under way to accelerate production, supplies will not be augmented for several months to come. Even then, supplies will be too small to have a significant impact on the outbreak."

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The WHO said it welcomed Canada's offer of several hundred doses of an experimental Ebola vaccine. Neither the Public Health Agency of Canada nor the WHO offered any new information Friday about who might get those doses or when they might be shipped out of the National Microbiology Laboratory, the Winnipeg facility that helped develop them.

Canada has offered to donate as many as 1,000 doses of an experimental injection known as VSV-EBOV, a vaccine that can be administered in a single dose and which has even protected some non-human primates when administered shortly after infection, much like the rabies vaccine.

"There's nobody in my lab that wouldn't take this vaccine if they were allowed to," said Thomas Giesbert, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Texas Medical Branch and one of the scientists who played a key role in developing the vaccine.

VSV-EBOV has protected the "hundreds" of primates on which it was been tested without adverse side effects, he said.

He credited Heinz Feldmann, former chief of special pathogens at the Winnipeg lab and now chief of the U.S. National Institutes of Health virology lab, with conducting crucial work on the vaccine, but said the vast majority of the research was done in the United States and paid for by Washington.

"It kind of irks me," Dr. Giesbert said. "I don't blame them [the Canadian government] for wanting be involved, they put money into this when Heinz was there, but to call it the Canadian vaccine when [the U.S. Department of Defense] paid for the majority of the work is nuts."

The Public Health Agency of Canada did not respond to e-mailed questions about the vaccine Friday.

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Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) predicted Friday that it will take six months to bring the Ebola outbreak under control.

MSF international president Joanne Liu, a Canadian, has just returned from a 10-day visit to the Ebola-affected region. At a briefing in Geneva, she told reporters that the outbreak of the deadly disease felt like "wartime."

She said the WHO had been slow to issue its official declaration that the Ebola outbreak was a "public health emergency of international concern" – a declaration that was made only on Aug. 8, several months after the outbreak began.

The WHO knew of 2,127 suspected, probable and confirmed cases of Ebola and 1,145 deaths as of Aug. 13, but it acknowledged Friday that figure is low.

"Staff at the outbreak sites see evidence that the numbers of reported cases and deaths vastly underestimate the magnitude of the outbreak," the WHO said in Geneva.

There is mounting evidence that many Ebola victims are kept hidden and never officially reported to the authorities because their families are openly hostile to health workers and distrust the hospitals, seeing them as a death sentence. And the dead are often buried before they can be counted as Ebola victims.

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At the same time, there was some good news on Friday from the WHO, which reported that there weren't any new cases of Ebola in Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa. Four people have died of Ebola in Nigeria so far, after a Liberian man flew to Lagos and died there. If the disease spreads in Nigeria, it could lead to a huge rise in the death toll, but so far that isn't happening, the WHO said.

"No new cases have been detected in Nigeria," it said. "Extensive contact tracing and monitoring, implemented with support from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has kept the number of additional cases small."

It confirmed, however, that the Ebola outbreak is likely to continue "for some time" in the three other affected countries: Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. It said "extraordinary measures" are needed on a "massive scale."

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About the Authors
Health reporter

Kelly Grant is a health reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More


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