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Three in Liberia given scarce Ebola drug

Health workers were handed protective gear before collecting bodies of Ebola victims from streets in Monrovia, Liberia.

Abbas Dulleh/Associated Press

Health workers were handed protective gear before collecting bodies of Ebola victims from streets in Monrovia, Liberia.

NEW YORK — Three Liberian health care workers who have contracted Ebola received an extremely scarce experimental serum on Friday at a hospital outside the national capital, Monrovia, a Liberian health official said Saturday.

The official, Tolbert G. Nyenswah, an assistant minister of health and social welfare, would not say whether any of the three were doctors.

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The drug, a mix of monoclonal antibodies called ZMapp, has been tested in animals but has not been studied for safety or effectiveness in humans. It arrived in Liberia on Wednesday after appeals by leaders there to top officials in the United States and a letter from President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia to President Obama.

Mapp Biopharmaceutical of San Diego, which provided the drug, said the “available supply of ZMapp has been exhausted.”

Nyenswah, who picked up the drug when it arrived at the airport and took part in a meeting to discuss which patients should be selected, said the three recipients had signed consent forms stating that they understood the risks and released all parties involved from liability. He said he did not know how the patients were doing since receiving the drug.

If the treatment works, Nyenswah said in an interview earlier in the week, “and we can save the doctors here, especially those senior medical doctors that are infected with the virus, then Liberia can be a place to do a mass trial with the drugs.”

Liberian health officials requested the serum after it was provided to two US development workers, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, who contracted Ebola while working at ELWA Hospital, the same hospital where the three Liberian health care workers were given the drug.

Brantly and Writebol were evacuated to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, where they continue to be treated. But a third patient reported to have received ZMapp, Miguel Pajares, a Spanish missionary priest, has died.

Giving ZMapp to foreign aid workers has raised broad ethical questions about the disparities in treatment between white outsiders and the Africans who form the overwhelming majority of victims in the Ebola epidemic.

Brantly wrote on Friday that he was “recovering in every way.” He thanked God for his health care team and for “sparing my life and continuing to heal my body.”

“There are still a few hurdles to clear before I can be discharged,” he said in the statement, released by Samaritan’s Purse, the relief agency where he worked in Liberia. “But I hold on to the hope of a sweet reunion with my wife, children, and family in the near future.”

Mapp Biopharmaceutical provided all the doses at no cost, according to an information sheet on its website.

A mother carried her child near an Ebola isolation center. Poor sanitation and close living quarters have not helped.

John Moore/Getty Images

A mother carried her child near an Ebola isolation center. Poor sanitation and close living quarters have not helped.

Getting the serum to Liberia was complicated. Legal and regulatory approval from the US government took several days, frustrating the Liberian health minister, Dr. Walter Gwenigale, friends said.

“He’s got doctors who are dying,” said Steve Radelet, an economic adviser to Johnson Sirleaf and a professor at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. “We were involved in some frantic phone calls trying to connect the dots over the weekend.”

Radelet said Gwenigale wanted to show health professionals, many of whom have contracted Ebola, that “he’s got their backs.”

Gwenigale also reached out to a US consultant to his ministry, Jacob Hughes, the chief executive of Hughes Development, when efforts to obtain the drug slowed last weekend.

“He was just a bit exasperated because they’d been working seven days a week for months, and three days is a long time when you’re waiting for Ebola drugs,” Hughes said. “He called and said: ‘This is our situation. Whatever you can do.’ ”

Johnson Sirleaf said her own phone call with John D. Podesta, a counselor to Obama whose daughter had worked in Liberia, also helped.

She said she also called Gayle Smith, a special assistant to Obama and the senior director for global development and humanitarian issues at the National Security Council. Support also came from the US ambassador to Liberia, Deborah R. Malac.

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