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Middle East Virus Travels to Far East

Middle East Virus (MERS) Travels to Far East

On June 14, The World Health Organization (WHO) described the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) outbreak in South Korea as “large and complex.” The WHO, joined by South Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare, called for strengthening of contact tracing, monitoring and quarantine as well as expanded laboratory testing to prevent further spread of the virus. To date there have been 150 cases and 16 deaths in South Korea.

The MERS virus is a coronavirus, similar to the SARS coronavirus that erupted in China in 2003 and subsequently spread to 25 other countries, causing 774 deaths worldwide. As with SARS, the MERS virus likely has its origin in bats. MERS may then be transmitted to camels. Many human cases of MERS appear to be linked with previous contacts with camels.

MERS first appeared in Saudi Arabia in 2012. The virus causes a severe respiratory illness with symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath. So far, Saudi has had 1,030 cases, of which 453 (44%) were fatal. (A world map of other MERS cases is available here.)

With the sudden jump of MERS virus into South Korea many scientists and public health officials are questioning why no vaccine candidates are available. Coronaviruses in general, and the SARS and MERS viruses in particular, have been extensively studied, along with their molecular biology and host immune responses. Some of that basic knowledge was developed and used by GVN Center Director and globally recognized SARS and MERS expert Dr. Ab Osterhaus to develop a candidate vaccine. Dr. Osterhaus used another virus, adenovirus, to carry proteins thereby eliciting immune responses in an animal model. In mice, this candidate prevents infection from the native MERS virus.

Recent reports in Reuters lay some of the blame for slow progress on vaccines at the door of the closed and often secretive kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The other source of foot-dragging is the uncertain market size, and manufacturing costs. Reuters notes “only a handful of small biotechs, including Greffex, Inovio, Novavax, have done any MERS vaccine work and their research is still pre-clinical. For profit-orientated drug companies, the problem is working out who is going to use a vaccine, who is going to pay for it and whether this is a commercial market.”

“The Global Virus Network works to spur research on viral threats, before they become pandemic,” said GVN’s President. “Working with Dr. Osterhaus, Dr. Mathew Frieman of the University of Maryland School of Medicine and other GVN experts, we hope to advance understanding of MERS in order to speed development of treatment and preventions,” she added.