The World Health Organization yesterday authorised the use of experimental drugs to fight Ebola as the death toll topped 1,000 and a Spanish priest became the first European to succumb to the latest outbreak.
The declaration by the UN's health agency came after a US company that makes an experimental serum called ZMapp said it had sent all its available supplies to hard-hit west Africa.
"In the special circumstances of this Ebola outbreak it is ethical to offer unregistered interventions as potential treatments or prevention," WHO assistant director general Marie-Paule Kieny told reporters in Geneva, following a meeting of medical experts on the issue.
The epidemic, described as the worst since Ebola was first discovered four decades ago, has killed 1,013 people since early this year, the WHO said.
Cases have been limited to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, which account for the bulk of victims, and Nigeria, where two people have died.
Elderly Spanish priest Miguel Pajares, who became infected while helping patients in Liberia, died in a Madrid hospital yesterday, five days after being evacuated.
He had been treated with ZMapp, which failed to save him but has shown positive effects on two US aid workers also infected in Liberia.
There is currently no available cure or vaccine for Ebola, which the WHO has declared a global public health emergency, and the use of experimental drugs has stoked a fierce ethical debate.
Despite promising results for the ZMapp treatment, made by private US company Mapp Biopharmaceutical, it had only been tested previously on monkeys.
Two possible vaccines were moving rapidly towards clinical trials, Kieny said, voicing optimism that one could be made widely available by year-end, maybe as early as November.
Kieny described the lack of vaccines and treatments for Ebola as "a market failure," pointing out that plenty of drugs had been developed "to a point", but companies had not footed the bill for the more expensive clinical trial process since the virus was "typically a disease of poor people in poor countries where there is no market."
Panic has gripped the impoverished west African countries ravaged by the disease, with drastic containment measures causing transport chaos, price hikes and food shortages, and stoking fears that people could die of hunger.
Numerous countries around the globe have imposed emergency measures, including flight bans and improved health screenings.