Dr. Sheik Umar Khan. Credit: Umaru Fofana/Reuters
Thanks to Lucie Lecomte for this CBC News report: Dying Sierra Leone Dr. Sheik Umar Khan never told Ebola drug was available. Excerpt:
The story of Sierra Leone's "hero doctor" does not have a happy ending.
Even though Dr. Sheik Umar Khan was an experienced virus warrior, and hemorrhagic fevers were his specialty, he tested positive for Ebola on July 22 and died in seven terrible days.
His friends and colleagues from around the world are sick with grief, and a haunting question hangs in the air. Did doctors make the right decision in refusing to treat him with an experimental drug?
It was an agonizing ethical drama that literally played out at his bedside, CBC discovered as we pieced this story together.
As the virus ravaged his body, doctors had a choice. Should Dr. Khan become the first human to receive an untested drug with unproven efficacy and unknown risk?
It was a question they could ask because of a simple quirk of fate. A single dose of the treatment happened to be within reach of that remote field hospital in rural Sierra Leone.
It was a lone sample of the drug called ZMapp, one of apparently only five in the world, brought by the Canadian scientists who helped develop it.
The Canadian team was testing the drug at a field laboratory near the border with Guinea simply to see how it would hold up in the African heat, according to a statement released by Doctors Without Borders.
When they offered it to the physicians treating Dr. Khan, they triggered an unprecedented philosophical debate that was argued across continents, as the virus wreaked its havoc on their colleague and friend.
The drug had never been tested on humans. What if it caused an allergic reaction that killed Dr. Khan?
His blood showed antibodies to the virus, evidence that his own immune system was already in full battle. What if the drug got in the way of that immune response?
But what if it worked?
But what if it worked and saved his life? And, what about all those other patients?
Was it ethical to give the drug to one person while so many others were dying without that option?
It was a debate that ricocheted between the bedside at the field hospital in Kailahun, in Sierra Leone's Eastern Province, to the Geneva offices of the World Health Organization, and the Belgium headquarters of Doctors Without Borders, according to Dr. Daniel Bausch, a long-time friend of Dr. Khan and a fellow virus warrior.
Just days earlier the two had been working side by side at the field hospital near the Guinea border, ground zero of the Ebola outbreak. Dr. Bausch left the day before Dr. Khan started feeling sick.
Worried about his friend, he weighed in on the debate from Geneva. "You had a person who was sick, and a drug never used on humans before, it wasn't approved. There were lots of questions to be asked and no easy answers," Dr. Bausch said.
Ultimately, he believes, the final decision was left with the doctors at the field hospital in Sierra Leone, although it was not a unanimous decision.
"There was, I don't want to say dissension," Bausch said. "But there were very definitely differences of opinion, and disagreements about what should happen."