The World Health Organization will convene a panel of medical ethicists to debate the use of experimental drugs in the midst of a deadly Ebola outbreak.

The experimental, unlicensed medicine given to two U.S. aid workers infected with the virus raises questions about whether untested drugs should be used in an outbreak, the WHO said Wednesday.

The ethicists, who are scheduled to meet early next week, will also explore the trickier question of who should receive the medicine, given that it’s in very limited supply.

“We are in an unusual situation in this outbreak,” WHO assistant director-general, Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, said in a news release. 

“We have a disease with a high fatality rate without any proven treatment or vaccine. We need to ask the medical ethicists to give us guidance on what the responsible thing to do is.”

The WHO said “several experimental options” for treating Ebola infections are under development.

The “gold standard” for trying out new treatments involves a series of human trials to make sure the drug is safe, the organization said.

But as the Ebola death toll in four Western African countries nears 1,000, many are asking whether experimental drugs should be offered to all patients facing difficult odds. The WHO says Ebola outbreaks have a fatality rate of up to 90 per cent.

In the case of the two U.S. aid workers, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, both consented to receiving the unlicensed drug ZMapp after contracting Ebola in Liberia. Both patients were flown to an Atlanta hospital, where they remain in strict isolation.

ZMapp is made up of three monoclonal antibodies, which target specific parts of the Ebola Zaire virus, the strain of Ebola behind the current outbreak. The safety of ZMapp has never been tested on humans.

While the experimental treatment has shown some promise, infectious disease specialists have said that a good outcome in one or two cases cannot substitute clinical trials.

Emergency summit

The WHO is currently holding a two-day, closed-door emergency meeting to determine whether the Ebola outbreak in four West African countries should be declared a public health emergency “of international concern.”

Doing that would allow the WHO to issue temporary recommendations on Ebola containment and prevention to its member states without halting global trade and travel, a spokesperson said.

The idea is to “find the right balance between not impeding international travel and trade while at the same time putting necessary public health measures,” Tarik Jasarevic told CTV News Channel Wednesday.

Jasarevic said the WHO has previously held similar emergency meetings on polio and the Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS.