PLoS One

PLoS One
[Accessed 21 January 2017]

A Systematic Review of Ebola Treatment Trials to Assess the Extent to Which They Adhere to Ethical Guidelines
Thomas Richardson, Andrew McDonald Johnston, Heather Draper
Research Article | published 17 Jan 2017 PLOS ONE
Objective: To determine to what extent each trial met criteria specified in three research frameworks for ethical trial conduct.
Design: Systematic review and narrative analysis

Methods and findings
Data sources: MEDBASE and EMBASE databases were searched using a specific search strategy. The Cochrane database for systematic reviews, the PROSPERO database and trial registries were examined. A grey literature search and citation search were also carried out.
Eligibility criteria for selecting studies: Studies were included where the intervention was being used to treat Ebola in human subjects regardless of study design, comparator or outcome measured. Studies were eligible if they had taken place after the 21st March 2014. Unpublished as well as published studies were included.
Included studies: Sixteen studies were included in the data synthesis. Data was extracted on study characteristics as well as any information relating to ten ethical areas of interest specified in the three research frameworks for ethical trial conduct and an additional criterion of whether the study received ethics approval from a research ethics committee.
Synthesis of results: Eight studies were judged to fully comply with all eleven criteria. The other eight studies all had at least one criteria where there was not enough information available to draw any conclusions. In two studies there were ethical concerns regarding the information provided in relation to at least one ethical criteria.
Description of the effect: One study did not receive ethical approval as the authors argued that treating approximately one hundred patients consecutively for compassionate reasons did not constitute a clinical trial. Furthermore, after the patients were treated, physicians in Sierra Leone did not release reports of treatment results and so study conclusions had to be made based on unpublished observations. In another study the risk-benefit ratio of the trial drug does not appear to be favourable and the pre-trial evidence base for its effectiveness against Ebola is speculative.

Some limited and appropriate deviation from standard research expectations in disaster situations is increasingly accepted. However, this is not an excuse for poor ethics oversight and international regulations are in place which should not be ignored. New guidelines are needed that better define the boundaries between using medicines for compassionate use and conducting a clinical trial. Greater support should be offered for local research ethics committees in affected areas so that they can provide robust ethical review. Further systematic reviews should be carried out in epidemics of any novel infectious diseases to assess if comparable findings arise.