Dallas Ebola patient waited nearly a week for experimental drug; family claims bias

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Story highlights

  • Thomas Eric Duncan was admitted to a Dallas hospital for Ebola on September 28
  • He got an experimental drug October 4; others with Ebola got such drugs much faster
  • Nephew: "He didn't get the medicine and treatment for the disease because he's African"
  • Hospital: Duncan was "treated the way any other patient would have been treated"
Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States, received an experimental medicine nearly a week after being admitted into the hospital -- a far longer wait than experienced by four other Ebola patients treated in the United States.
Those patients -- two each at Atlanta's Emory University Hospital and the University of Nebraska Medical Center -- received their experimental medicines immediately. Those four are U.S. citizens; Duncan is a Liberian national.
"We feel he didn't get the medicine and treatment for the disease because he's African and they don't consider him as important as the other three," Josephus Weeks, Duncan's nephew, said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who attended the press conference with Weeks and Duncan's mother as a newly appointed spokesman for the family, added, "We don't feel good about that. It's been a concern he had to wait so long."
Jackson said he thinks money also played a role in Duncan's treatment.
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"I would tend to think that those who do not have insurance, those who do not have Medicaid do not have the same priorities as those who do," the civil rights leader said.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for Dallas' Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital said Duncan is being "treated the way any other patient would have been treated, regardless of nationality or ability to pay for care. We have a long history of treating a multicultural community in this area."
The hospitals that took care of the four other patients had substantial advance notice that patients were on their way.
Duncan went the emergency room at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital on September 25, but staff there didn't realize he had Ebola and sent him home hours later. He was admitted on September 28 when the hospital realized he had the disease. He started receiving the experimental drug, brincidofovir, on October 4.
He was in critical condition Tuesday. Weeks, though, said his uncle is "doing better" -- he's still on dialysis, but his heart rate has improved, his blood pressure is "normal," "his fever is pretty much gone" and his diarrhea has "slowed." It's not clear if the experimental drug has anything to do with these changes.
Since the drugs being used to treat Ebola are still experimental, it is up to each individual hospital to file the paperwork with the Food and Drug Administration for permission to get the drug from the manufacturer and use it.
The hospital has declined to tell CNN when they filed for permission to the FDA to use brincidofovir.
"The care team has been consulting with the CDC and Emory, on a daily basis since Mr. Duncan was admitted to the hospital, discussing the possible course of treatment, including the use of investigational drugs," hospital spokesman Wendell Watson said in a statement.
The FDA and Chimerix, the company that makes the drug, said if there was any delay it wasn't on their part. Stephanie Yao, a spokeswoman for the FDA said she couldn't comment on any particular case, but when doctors make requests for experimental Ebola treatments, "we turn them around in a matter of a few hours -- often less than one hour."
Joseph Schepers, a spokesman for Chimerix, said requests to use brincidofovir "are expedited immediately in the most expedited way you could possibly do it."
"It's a general rule in medicine that the earlier you start therapy in a sick person who needs the therapy, the better the response," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, when asked about the impact of the wait for the drug.
Weeks said he and his family had to "pressure" the hospital to apply for permission to give the drug, brincidofovir, to Duncan.
"They were treating him with oxygen, water and a bed to lay on," he said.
Weeks and Jackson said they believe the hospital applied for permission to use brincidofovir only after Jackson gave out the hospital's phone number on his radio show last week and urged listeners to call in and complain.
Ashoka Mukpo, a freelance NBC cameraman, was admitted to the University of Nebraska Medical Center Tuesday and began receiving brincidofovir the same day. Dr. Rick Sacra received another experimental drug called TKM-Ebola, which is easier to access but still requires permission from the FDA. Dr. Kent Brantley and Nancy Writebol -- both treated at Emory -- took Zmapp, which is no longer available because the company ran out of supplies of the drug.