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Scientists scramble to unravel MERS-CoV mysteries

Saudi Arabia says the total number of cases of [b]Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)[/b], an often deadly new disease, had nearly doubled in the kingdom in April. According to a [s]Reuters Health[/s] report, international concern about the disease is acute because Saudi Arabia is expected to receive large numbers of foreign pilgrims during the fasting month of [b]Ramadan[/b] in July, followed by millions more for Islam’s annual Haj pilgrimage in October. Although the [b]WHO[/b] has said the disease, from the same family as the [b]SARS[/b] virus, is difficult to pass between humans, most of the cases reported in Saudi Arabia so far appear to have been transmitted between people rather than from animals, the reports says.

The fact that the [b]Arabian[/b] camel is the origin of the infectious disease has been confirmed recently. However, says a [s]Science Daily[/s] report, the transmission pathways of the viruses have not been clear until now. Virologists Norbert Nowotny and Jolanta Kolodziejek from the [b]Institute of Virology[/b] found that viruses from infected humans and Arabian camels from the same geographical region have nearly identical RNA sequences. ‘Vaccinations of camels are currently being discussed. We will thus be able to halt the spread of the virus,’ said Nowotny.

A team of [b]Purdue University[/b] researchers is creating molecules designed to shut down the MERS-CoV that recently arrived in the US. A [s]Health-Canal[/s] report quotes Purdue Professor Andrew Mesecar as saying that there is currently no treatment or vaccine for the virus, which has an estimated fatality rate of 30%. ‘We are creating molecules to block a key enzyme that allows the virus the live,’ Mesecar said. ‘This enzyme has a big mouth that, in a way, allows it to chew up other proteins the virus needs to live. How do we stop a big mouth from chewing things up? We stuff it full of something else. That is what the molecules we invent do. If you can shut down this critical enzyme, you can effectively shut down the virus.’

Scientists at [b]Dana-Farber Cancer Institute[/b] have identified natural human antibodies against the virus. Currently there is no vaccine or antiviral treatment for MERS. [s]Health-Canal[/s] reports that in laboratory studies, the researchers, led by Prof Wayne Marasco at Dana-Farber, found that these ‘neutralising’ antibodies prevented a key part of the virus from attaching to protein receptors that allow the virus to infect human cells. Further experiments are underway that could lead to development of antibody preventives and treatments for MERS.

[link url=]Full Reuters Health report[/link]
[link url=]Full Science Daily report[/link]
[link url=]Eurosurveillance article[/link]
[link url=]Full Health-Canal report[/link]
[link url=]Full Health-Canal report[/link]
[link url=]PNAS abstract[/link]
[link url=]Further Emerging Infections Diseases research[/link]

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