Cure or Vaccine for MERS-CoV Virus May Already Be Near; Camels Found to Be Culprit Carriers of Disease

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By Esther Tanquintic-Misa | May 1, 2014 4:05 PM EST

The cure or vaccine for the MERS-CoV virus (Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus) currently sweeping across the Middle East may already be near.

Two studies published in different leading scientific journals on Monday said scientists have identified antibodies that could potentially be used towards the development of a cure or vaccine treatment against the novel virus.

REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser/Files
Camels are seen after the 20km camel race during the opening of the Janadriya festival near Riyadh, in this April 3, 2013 file photo. Scientists believe camels in Saudi Arabia are the main animal reservoir of MERS, a new disease that kills about a third of sufferers and has infected 339 people in the kingdom. Picture taken April 3, 2013. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser/Files

The lowly animal camel has been identified by another study as the culprit carrier of the MERS-CoV.

The research teams that identified the antibodies were based at Harvard University and the other in China.

A SARS-like viral disease first detected in 2012, MERS-CoV has caused outbreaks in the Middle East and sporadic cases around the world. Just recently, international health experts started getting alarmed over the surge in infections and deaths in Saudi Arabia.

Over the weekend, 26 confirmed additional MERS-CoV cases and 10 deaths were reported by Saudi officials. The latest figures brings the total toll in the kingdom alone to 339 confirmed cases. Some 102 people have died.

The Chinese-led team in their study published at the Science Translational Medicine journal found that two antibodies, dubbed MERS-4 and MERS-27, could protect cells from getting infected with the MERS-CoV virus. Their study was partly funded by China's health ministry and the NIH's National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

"The combined effect of the two mAbs would be expected to provide stronger and broader neutralizing activity against wild-type or mutant MERS-CoVs should mutations occur during viral infection and transmission," the team wrote.

The study by Harvard's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, along with scientists from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said they discovered seven neutralising antibodies. Partly funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), their work was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Meantime, researchers from Saudi Arabia and New York have discovered that a number of the MERS subtypes exist in the DNA of camel animals, including one identical to the virus infecting humans.

Until now, scientists and health experts have yet to exactly pinpoint the origins of the MERS-CoV.

"Any time you have an emerging infection that has a high case fatality rate, that's been around for over a year, that has caused illness in multiple countries, that's caused illness in travelers and health care workers, and for which there is no treatment or vaccine, we're concerned. We've been concerned for a year and a half, and we remain concerned," Dr. David Swerdlow, who heads the team responsible for tracking MERS at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said.

Although mostly centered in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East, the virus has gone offshore albeit only in a number of sporadic cases in Britain, Greece, France, Italy, Malaysia and the Philippines, among others.

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(Photo: REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser/Files / )
Camels are seen after the 20km camel race during the opening of the Janadriya festival near Riyadh, in this April 3, 2013 file photo. Scientists believe camels in Saudi Arabia are the main animal reservoir of MERS, a new disease that kills about a third of sufferers and has infected 339 people in the kingdom. Picture taken April 3, 2013. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser/Files
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