German scientists have created a vaccine which has been found to be effective in reducing the viral load of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) virus substantially in camels. MERS, which can be extremely deadly if contracted by humans, is typically spread to humans through contact with sick camels. While the vaccine does not completely eliminate the virus from infected animals, it may have enough of an impact to dramatically reduce the chance humans contract the virus from camels.
MERS kills approximately 30 to 40 percent of the people who contract the virus. The warning signs of the illness include fever, cough, shortness of breath and sometimes diarrhea and nausea. If the virus is allowed to progress, more severe complications can follow, including pneumonia and kidney failure.
Health officials believe that dromedary camels are the original source of the outbreak in humans. The virus may have a higher rate of transmission to humans that come into contact with a sick camel’s bodily fluids, such as saliva, milk, nasal discharge and blood. This is a problem particularly in countries that harvest camel meat and milk, though the virus can spread internationally through airlines.
Since the disease emerged in 2012, the World Health Organization has reported more than 1,600 cases across 26 countries. Of the infected, nearly 600 died due to the virus.
The research team behind the efforts to create the vaccine genetically engineered a smallpox virus known as Modified Vaccinia Ankara (MVA) to create antibodies and killer cells that destroy the virus faster than it can replicate. The technique has been used before in attempts to create vaccines for influenza, Ebola and hepatitis C. The goal was to train the body to recognize the MERS virus and to kill it on sight.
The vaccines were unsuccessful in completely eliminating the risk of infection in tested camels, but the symptoms developed in the camels were considerably more mild.
“This is the first step toward developing a viable vaccine against MERS-CoV in camels which could reduce the reservoir for MERS-CoV in the Middle East”, commented Dr. Matthew Frieman, Associate Professor at the University of Maryland.
Earlier this year, a MERS outbreak created panic in South Korea, leading to a heavily criticized decision by health officials to quarantine the infected. Three dozen people died before the South Korean government was able to contain the outbreak.