As MERS Continues Its Grasp, Research Looks For Answers
September 9, 2013

As MERS Continues Its Grasp, Research Looks For Answers

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

As of September 7, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been notified of an additional six laboratory-confirmed cases of MERS-CoV, bringing the total number of illnesses of this virus to 114. Of the six new cases, four have resulted in death, bringing the MERS-CoV death toll to 54.

Of the newest reported cases, one comes from Tunisia of a 66-year-old man who became ill on May 1, 2013 and died nine days later on May 10. The possible infection was first reported on May 22 when the man’s son and daughter had been lab-confirmed with the then novel coronavirus. The father’s case was not confirmed until recently when CDC scientists were able to make a connection via lab samples.

A second case reported on September 6 occurred in a woman from Qatar. This 56-year-old woman had underlying medical conditions when she became ill on August 18 and died 13 days later on August 31. That case was confirmed by scientists at Public Health England, UK.

On September 7, four additional laboratory-confirmed cases of MERS were reported to the WHO by Saudi Arabia Ministry of Health.

This first case was in a 41-year-old female healthcare worker from Riyadh who had no underlying medical conditions. She became ill on August 15 and died a few weeks later as her condition deteriorated. Investigations continue into the source of transmission as the healthcare worker was not known to be in contact with any confirmed MERS cases. As well, no known exposure to animals was also determined.

The second case is in a 30-year-old male healthcare worker also from the same hospital as the aforementioned case. He developed severe pneumonia on September 1, and is currently listed in critical condition.

The third case was of a 79-year-old woman from Hafar al-Batin province who developed a respiratory illness on August 21 and died on September 2. She was a known contact of a previously-confirmed MERS-CoV patient in a family cluster.

The last reported case is of a 47-year-old man also from Hafar al-Batin province with a chronic heart condition who became ill on August 23. He is a contact of a previously-confirmed MERS-CoV patient in a family cluster and is currently in critical condition.

The continued incline in MERS-CoV cases has drawn concern from health officials in Saudi Arabia as the hajj season fast approaches. In order to keep cases to a minimum, the Health Ministry has urged all elderly, children and those with compromised immunity or illness to forgo this year’s pilgrimage.

An even bigger concern would be for anyone who visits Mecca during the hajj who are also from abroad – millions are expected to flock on Mecca from around the world – to become infected and carry the virus home with them, potentially infecting countless others.

Currently, only a handful of infections have been confirmed outside the Middle East; limited cases have been confirmed in France, Italy, Germany and Tunisia. The bulk of cases have remained confined to the Middle East, with the majority (est. 90 percent) within Saudi Arabia.

Experts have struggled to get a grasp on this novel coronavirus, which is very similar to the SARS virus that killed hundreds of people and infected countless others in 2002-2003. Experts studying the virus have yet to find a confirmed source, meaning there is no vaccine to protect against the virus and no treatment to cure it once it is contracted.

However, some research has already found hopeful leads.

Scientists from The Netherlands last month found MERS-CoV antibodies in dromedary camels and subsequent research from the US and Saudi Arabia found a bat sample that contained a 100-percent genetic match to the virus found in humans. Both research groups maintained that further evidence was needed to make any concrete confirmations and links.

Also providing some hope for future treatment of MERS in humans, scientists from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), reported that a combination of two licensed antiviral drugs had reduced virus replication and showed some improved clinical outcome in a recently developed monkey model of MERS-CoV infection.

The study, published in Nature Medicine, expands on earlier work that showed a combination of ribavirin and interferon-alpha 2b stops MERS-CoV from replicating in cell culture. Both antivirals are commonly used together to treat viral infections such as hepatitis C.

In the new study, the research team purposely infected six rhesus macaques with the MERS-CoV virus. After eight hours, three were treated with the antivirals. Compared to the untreated group, the treated monkeys showed no sign of breathing difficulties and only had minimal evidence of pneumonia. The treated group also had lower amounts of virus and less severe tissue damage in the lungs.