South Korea's GeneOne Life Science and San Diego, CA-based Inovio ($INO) teamed up to develop a vaccine for Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which has infected 1,650 and killed nearly 600 since its emergence. The candidate has entered Phase I trials in the U.S., but a rising competitor, developed by European scientists, is hot on its trail.
In a study published in Science, the new candidate protected camels from developing MERS symptoms. Camels are the primary host for the virus. According to the BBC, experts hope that such a vaccine might stop the virus proliferating among camels and spreading to people.
Bart Haagmans of the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands and a team of scientists from the Netherlands, Spain and Germany modified a smallpox virus to display MERS virus proteins on its surface. It was given to four camels via nasal spray, while another four camels received a placebo, Scientific American reported. Three weeks later, they were all exposed to the MERS virus.
While the camels receiving the placebo showed mild symptoms and suffered from runny noses, the vaccinated camels did not. The scientists noted that the vaccinated camels excreted a much lower amount of virus than the camels that were given the placebo.
While it remains unclear whether the vaccine could be effective in humans, limiting transmission between camels and from camels to humans is a step in the right direction. And researchers said that human trials "may be on the horizon," Scientific American reported.
The news comes as South Korea declares the end of the largest MERS outbreak outside Saudi Arabia, which infected 186 people and killed 36. Since its discovery in Saudi Arabia in 2012, MERS has since spread to a number of countries. It does not spread easily from person to person, requiring close contact to do so, but multiple reports point to "doctor-shopping" and many people visiting MERS patients as a possible reason for the South Korean outbreak.
Last summer, Inovio and GeneOne's vaccine showed 100% efficacy in mice, camels and monkeys. Three months later, the candidate entered first-in-human trials at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.