Ethics review of studies during public health emergencies - the experience of the WHO ethics review committee during the Ebola virus disease epidemic

BMC Med Ethics. 2017 Jun 26;18(1):43. doi: 10.1186/s12910-017-0201-1.


Background: Between 2013 and 2016, West Africa experienced the largest ever outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease. In the absence of registered treatments or vaccines to control this lethal disease, the World Health Organization coordinated and supported research to expedite identification of interventions that could control the outbreak and improve future control efforts. Consequently, the World Health Organization Research Ethics Review Committee (WHO-ERC) was heavily involved in reviews and ethics discussions. It reviewed 24 new and 22 amended protocols for research studies including interventional (drug, vaccine) and observational studies.

Who-erc reviews: WHO-ERC provided the reviews within on average 6 working days. The WHO-ERC often could not provide immediate approval of protocols for reasons which were not Ebola Virus Disease specific but related to protocol inconsistencies, missing information and complex informed consents. WHO-ERC considerations on Ebola Virus Disease specific issues (benefit-risk assessment, study design, exclusion of pregnant women and children from interventional studies, data and sample sharing, collaborative partnerships including international and local researchers and communities, community engagement and participant information) are presented.

Conclusions: To accelerate study approval in future public health emergencies, we recommend: (1) internally consistent and complete submissions with information documents in language participants are likely to understand, (2) close collaboration between local and international researchers from research inception, (3) generation of template agreements for data and sample sharing and use during the ongoing global consultations on bio-banks, (4) formation of Joint Scientific Advisory and Data Safety Review Committees for all studies linked to a particular intervention or group of interventions, (5) formation of a Joint Ethics Review Committee with representatives of the Ethics Committees of all institutions and countries involved to strengthen reviews through the different perspectives provided without the 'opportunity costs' for time to final approval of multiple, independent reviews, (6) direct information exchange between the chairs of advisory, safety review and ethics committees, (7) more Ethics Committee support for investigators than is standard and (8) a global consultation on criteria for inclusion of pregnant women and children in interventional studies for conditions which put them at particularly high risk of mortality or other irreversible adverse outcomes under standard-of-care.

Keywords: Children; Clinical research; Drugs; Ebola; Observational studies; Pregnancy; Research ethics; Vaccines; WHO ethics review committee.

MeSH terms

  • Advisory Committees
  • Africa, Western
  • Bioethical Issues
  • Biomedical Research / ethics*
  • Child
  • Disease Outbreaks
  • Emergencies*
  • Epidemics*
  • Ethical Review*
  • Ethics Committees, Research*
  • Ethics, Research
  • Female
  • Hemorrhagic Fever, Ebola* / drug therapy
  • Hemorrhagic Fever, Ebola* / prevention & control
  • Humans
  • Informed Consent
  • International Cooperation
  • Patient Selection
  • Pregnancy
  • Public Health
  • Research Design
  • Risk Assessment
  • World Health Organization