NIH backs New York MERS-CoV vaccine development program

While the death toll from Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) is now into the 70s, the situation is better than some feared, with the Hajj pilgrimage passing without incident. Drug combinations have had limited success against the virus though, prompting researchers to push ahead with development of vaccines.

New York Blood Center's (NYBC) Laboratory of Viral Immunology is among the organizations working on a vaccine against MERS-CoV. Its program received a boost this week when the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) committed $400,000 to advance development of the vaccine. The grant will allow NYBC to accelerate its MERS-CoV program, which has so far identified the receptor-binding domain and major neutralizing epitope that will be used in development of a vaccine.

NYBC reached this stage by tapping into its experience of developing a vaccine during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003. SARS and MERS-CoV are both caused by viruses similar to coronaviruses found in bats. The animal reservoirs for MERS-CoV are still being confirmed, but bats and camels have both been linked to the disease. A MERS CoV-like virus has been found in camels, and some people who work with the animals have fallen ill.

Many of the cases have no link to animals, though. Work to understand how the virus spreads is progressing alongside research into treatments and preventative vaccines. In September a U.S. team presented data showing a combination of ribavirin and interferon was effective in monkeys, but the treatment has proven ineffective in humans. Physicians in Saudi Arabia gave the combination to 5 critically ill patients but none of them responded positively. All 5 patients died.

- read the NYBC press release
- here's the MERS-CoV latest