A new MERS coronavirus is being added to new research in the idea that a combination of existing drugs may help some patients who are infected. Recent findings could prove to be important because there is no vaccine.
Infections continue to pile up, particularly in Saudi Arabia, because there’s no drugs specially designed to mitigate the damage ti does in severe cases.
The World Health Organization put the global count of MERS infections at 114 with 54 deaths. But since then Saudi authorities have announced eight additional cases, three of them fatal. That will push the global total to 122 cases and 57 deaths.
The new research into the drug combo shows it helps reduce the severity of disease in macaque monkeys deliberately infected with MERS. While the regimen was previously tested in kidney cells from monkeys, these findings are the first showing what happens when the drugs are used in living animals.
Macaques given ribavirin and interferon alpha 2b after having been infected with the MERS coronavirus were less sick than infected animals that weren’t given the therapy. As well, follow-up autopsies of the treated and untreated animals showed lower levels of virus in tissues and less lung damage in the treated animals.
“Everything fit together towards suggesting that treatment definitely helps lead to a better outcome than the absence of treatment,” said Darryl Falzarano, a Canadian scientist who is the lead author of the study, published Sunday in the journal Nature Medicine.
The work was done at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Mont. Falzarano is currently a visiting fellow at the facility.
When the new coronavirus first hit the scientific community’s radar about a year ago, several labs began trying to figure out if drugs already in the world’s medicine cabinet might help combat the disease the virus triggers.
Developing a new drug from scratch can take years. Persuading a pharmaceutical company the sales potential warrants production, pushing the new compound through clinical trials and securing regulatory approval adds tens of millions of dollars in costs and additional years to the process.
If MERS starts to spread more widely among people, the world wouldn’t have that kind of time, scientists reasoned. So they started to test old drugs, alone and in combination.
Interferon alpha 2b is a synthetic version of a protein made by the human immune system. Ribavirin is an antiviral drug used for infections like hepatitis C. It was also widely used during the 2003 SARS outbreak; MERS is from the same family of viruses as SARS.