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NEW HOPE AGAINST MERS? New drug cocktail may protect humanity from deadly disease

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
September 9th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Two common antiviral drugs found to protect monkeys against the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, or MERS, may soon be used on humans. Scientists have reported hopeful results by combining the two drugs with rhesus monkeys infected with the disease.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic online) - Ribavirin and interferon were given to half of six rhesus monkeys eight hours after they were infected with the virus. Researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases gave the drugs then noted that the monkeys given the two-drug cocktail had fewer viruses in their blood, no breathing difficulties and only minimal X-ray evidence of pneumonia.

The untreated animals became fell ill, the authors of the study said. The study "not a game changer, but an important observation," Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the institute's director said.

"But if I was a doctor with MERS patients, and I had nothing else to give them, I wouldn't hesitate. If someone has advanced disease, there's 50 percent mortality," Fauci said, noting that the number of monkeys was minimal. In addition, treatment was started shortly after infection, not always the case of human victims with the disease. He also noted that the drugs, which work in monkeys, sometimes fail in humans.

The Deputy Health Minister of Saudi Arabia Dr. Ziad A. Memish says that doctors there had already tried the two-drug combination on patients. Saudi Arabia is also the nation where the majority of the known MERS cases have occurred. The cocktail didn't work well, he said, but that might have been because it was started late, when patients were hospitalized and already near death.

"This is great news and much-needed information, although it's very preliminary," he said.

According to the World Health Organization, there have been 108 known human cases of MERS since it emerged in 2012, of which 50 have been fatal.

Currently, there is no recommended treatment. MERS patients are frequently put on ventilators and given corticosteroids to fight inflammation in their lungs and other supportive therapy.

The ribavirin and interferon cocktail tested on the monkeys is currently used to treat chronic hepatitis C in humans. Interferon can cause sleeplessness and depression, while ribavirin is toxic to red and white blood cells. Extended use of ribavirin can be very dangerous.

Fauci points out that hepatitis treatment lasts for months, while treatment for MERS would presumably be short-lived because the virus replicates quickly.

Only isolated last year, MERS may have infected humans many times before without having been recognized. Scientists believe that it originated in bats, and a fragment of viral gene identical to the virus taken from human cases was recently found in a Saudi bat.

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