Randomised controlled trials for Ebola: practical and ethical issues

2 months ago, when the numbers known to have died from Ebola in west Africa could still be counted in hundreds, WHO made an important statement about investigational drugs and vaccines. This crisis is so acute, WHO declared, that it is ethical to offer interventions with potential benefits but unknown efficacy and side-effects, though every effort should be made to evaluate benefits and risks and share all data generated.

The need for drugs and vaccines was urgent then. With cases now rising exponentially and health systems overwhelmed, it is even greater today. Vaccine safety trials are underway in the USA and the UK, and poised to roll out to Africa soon. But treatments for those with infection are required too. Besides playing a direct part in containing the epidemic, interventions that could improve outcomes for the sick would help to rebuild the confidence of affected communities in health services, a critical step if Ebola is to be overcome.

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