Experts: MERS vaccine is possible--but is it worth it?

A recent swell in the number of reported Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) cases in Saudi Arabia has officials discussing the development of a vaccine. But while vaccinemakers have the know-how to create the jab, some say doing so may make little sense both financially and from a public health standpoint.

As Reuters reports, virology experts are questioning the logic of spending millions on immunization to halt the infection's spread when tracing its source--thought to potentially be among camels--may be a better bet.

"There are enormous problems with the idea of a MERS vaccine," Ian Jones, a virologist at Britain's Reading University, told the news service. "I can see it works as an appeasement--that they want to say they can make it--and biochemically of course they could, but practically it doesn't make any sense."

For one, there's the question of whom exactly to vaccinate. The infection--dubbed a deadlier, harder-to-transmit version of SARS--has sickened upward of 250 people and killed 93 across the Middle East, Europe, Asia and North Africa since it first emerged two years ago. But many of the cases are concentrated: Of Saudi Arabia's 91 cases announced this month, 73 have been in Jeddah, many of them healthcare workers, Reuters notes.

But MERS' 30% death rate has Saudis scared nonetheless, pressuring the government to make a move. And while authorities this week said they had invited 5 international vaccinemakers to visit and discuss collaborating with them to develop an affordable MERS shot, the job may not be a high priority for drugmakers given the syndrome's so-far limited scope, virus expert Bart Haagmans of the Netherlands' Erasmus Medical Centre told Reuters.

"I question whether there would really be any interest from vaccine companies to develop a human vaccine at this stage," he said. "That's what we know already from many other viral infections where there are only a very limited number of people affected. It's common sense and general knowledge, I'd say."

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