Global Health Press
Pitt scientists collaborate in effort to combat the deadly MERS virus

Pitt scientists collaborate in effort to combat the deadly MERS virus

UPMCThe University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine is leading an international team of scientists working on a vaccine to immunize camels, which are believed to be infecting humans with a contagious and deadly virus spreading through the Middle East.

Details of the researchers’ work in immunizing against Middle East Respiratory Syndrome will appear in the upcoming issue of the journal Vaccine.

Senior author Andrea Gambotto, an associate professor in Pitt’s Department of Surgery, said MERS poses an emerging threat worldwide because some people infected in several Middle Eastern countries have unwittingly brought the virus to the U.S. and other countries via air travel. Immunizing camels, an important animal in the Mideast for their use as transportation and a food source, is seen as the way to stave off the spread of the virus.

There have been 837 cases of MERS confirmed to date, including 291 deaths. Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath, with respiratory failure in severe illnesses, the World Health Organization reports. Some people can be infected and show no symptoms, despite being contagious and spreading the virus to others.

Camels are believed to be the source of infecting humans because strains of MERS that match human strains have been isolated from camels in the countries where MERS is spreading.

Dr. Gambotto and his colleagues from Pitt, the Netherlands and Qatar created a vaccine that includes a protein found on the surface of the MERS virus. The vaccine primes the immune system to detect the protein and then fight the virus.

The team had such success with immunizing mice — all of them had antibody responses against the MERS protein — that it wants to move on to immunizing camels. The only thing holding back those trials is funding, Dr. Gambotto said.

“We’re hoping in the near future to get additional funding so we can do actual testing of the vaccine with camels,” he said. “We know how to make the vaccine. We need financial help.”

As with any virus, there is a 0.1 percent chance of MERS becoming a pandemic the world over by mutating and becoming much more easily transmitted between humans, he said.

“Do we want to take that chance?” he said. “We want to be pre-emptive with this emerging virus.”

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette