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Is there an “upside” to Ebola?

October 31, 2014
Can anything good come out of the disease, which has no known cure and a terrifying mortality rate of 50 percent?
Yes. To the extent it forces a conversation about the regulations surrounding the development of new drugs and the right of terminal patients to experiment with their own bodies, Ebola in the United States may well accelerate adoption of so-called right-to-try laws. These radical laws allow terminally ill patients access to drugs, devices, and treatments that haven’t yet been fully approved by the Federal Drug Administration and other medical authorities. The patients and their estates agree not to bring legal action against caregivers, pharmaceutical companies, and insurers.

Reading the entire essay, there are actually two points which Gillespie is making, each of which should find a sympathetic audience in at least some corners of America. The first is the one referenced in the quote above and it deals with the legal options for gravely ill patients to give not yet approved medical procedures a try. I understand the hesitation on the part of hospitals and pharmaceutical companies on questions such as this. We live in such a litigious society today that any company with moderately deep pockets will see a line of lawyers outside their door waiting to sue them out of existence if there is even a sliver of an excuse to do so. (Or, in many cases, the sliver can be entirely lacking, but they’ll bring the suit anyway on the off chance that the company will pay them to go away.) So when a dying patient appeals to them for a chance to try some experimental medicine or procedure which has not yet been approved by the government, they may feel they have to turn them away just to save themselves from fiscal oblivion.

What I fail to see is why legislation or administrative guidelines which might provide an end run around these pitfalls is controversial in any way. The typical nanny state impulse is to restrict options and actions for citizens in order to “save them from themselves” or prevent some theoretical future harm to others. But when we’re talking about a doomed patient who is, in all likelihood, going to die anyway, what is the motivation to block such an action? Assuming that the patient is willing to sign some legal binder full of waivers absolving the medical provider from any future liability and forbid any law suits by the patient (or anyone later acting on their behalf) then the doctor or company should feel free to try. It also carries an additional benefit to everyone, whether the treatment works or not. There is only so much you can learn from testing drugs and procedures on lab animals. The real test is always how well it works on actual human beings. Not to be too cold and robotic about this but if the victim is willing to play the role of laboratory guinea pig, everyone benefits.

The second point Gillespie addresses is one which most of our regular readers are likely familiar with already. As his colleague Ronald Bailey discovered, there was a rapid diagnostic test for Ebola in development years ago, as well as work on a vaccine. The FDA shut down a Canadian company’s program through the usual bureaucratic nonsense just as the virus was crossing the Atlantic. (They have since lifted the hold they put on it.) Perhaps the hard lessons we’re learning now will make them a little less quick on the trigger for such things. And if that happens, then maybe there was an upside to all this after all.



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