MERS, a SARS-like viral disease first detected in
2012 that has caused outbreaks in the Middle East and sporadic cases
around the world, has raised international alarm in recent weeks
with a surge in infections and deaths in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi officials confirmed 26 more MERS cases and 10 deaths at the
weekend, bringing the toll in the kingdom alone to 339 confirmed
cases, of which 102 have been fatal.
There is currently no cure or vaccine for MERS — a severe
respiratory disease which causes cough, fever, shortness of breath,
and can lead to pneumonia and kidney failure.
But in studies published in two leading scientific journals on
Monday, scientists from the United States, China and Hong Kong said
they had found several so-called neutralising antibodies that were
able to prevent a key part of the virus from attaching to receptors
that allow it to infect human cells.
Antibodies are proteins made by the immune system that recognize
foreign viruses and bacteria. A neutralising antibody is one that
not only recognizes a specific virus but also prevents it from
infecting host cells, eventually meaning the infection is cleared
from the person or animal.
In one study in the Science Translational Medicine journal, a
Chinese-led team found that two antibodies, called MERS-4 and
MERS-27, were able to block cells in a lab dish from becoming
infected with the MERS virus.
"While early, the results hint that these antibodies, especially ...
used in combination, could be promising candidates for interventions
against MERS," the scientists wrote.
In a second study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences (PNAS) journal, a team from the United States said their
discovery of a panel of seven neutralizing antibodies offered the
long-term possibility that either a vaccine or treatments could be
developed to fight MERS.
The vast majority of MERS cases have been in Saudi Arabia and other
countries in the Middle East, but the discovery of sporadic cases in
Britain, Greece, France, Italy, Malaysia and other countries have
raised concerns about the potential global spread of the disease by
infected airline passengers.
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Although the disease has not yet been seen in North America, "the
chance of someone infected with MERS landing on U.S. shores is
possible," said Wayne Marasco, an infectious disease expert at the
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute who led the PNAS study.
Scientists are not yet clear precisely how the MERS virus is
transmitted to people, but it has been found in bats and camels, and
many experts say camels are the most likely animal reservoir from
which humans are becoming infected.
The virus is similar to the one that caused Severe Acute Respiratory
Syndrome (SARS) which emerged in China in 2002/2003 and killed some
800 people — around a tenth of those it infected.
The World Health Organization has said it is "concerned" about the
rising number of MERS infections in Saudi Arabia. The United Nations
health agency said it plans to send a team of international experts
to the kingdom this week to help investigate the outbreak.
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)
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