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China, US spearhead MERS fight

Xu Jingxi
Updated: Jun 17,2015 9:16 AM     China Daily

Chinese and US scientists have jointly developed a new antibody targeting the Middle East respiratory syndrome virus, which has killed 19 people and put more than 150 in hospitals.

The antibody has proved highly successful on animals, and experts have called for a clinical trial to be held as soon as possible.

On June 15, Fudan University said that recent tests of the antibody on marmosets and rabbits had produced “very effective” results. The antibody, which has been coded m336, was developed with the National Institutes of Health in the United States.

Jiang Shibo, head of the research team at the university, said on June 16 that the antibody neutralized the MERS virus more effectively than any other antibodies that have been published in academic journals worldwide.

It is also the only one of three antibodies developed by Chinese scientists to complete an effectiveness test on animals. It is now ready for toxicity testing on animals and then clinical trials, Jiang said.

Zhong Nanshan, the respiratory expert who led the battle against the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in China in 2003, called for a clinical trial for the antibody as soon as possible.

Jiang said: “It will cost millions of dollars and take years to complete the clinical trials. We hope the government can speed up approval for this ... and provide the funding together with pharmaceutical companies.”

MERS first emerged in humans in the Middle East three years ago, but the deadly infectious disease had not attracted much international attention until it was brought into South Korea and spread quickly. As of June 16, it had killed 19 people there and put 154 others in hospitals.

But George Gao, an academic, said people needn’t panic because no big variations have been detected in the virus and scientists have antibodies stored for emergency use.

Gao is leading a research team at the Institute of Microbiology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences to develop an antibody targeting the MERS virus.

“Although a fourth-generation patient has emerged in South Korea, all MERS patients were infected within hospitals, except the first patient. Human-to-human transmission of the virus is still limited,” Gao said.

“Scientists have never stopped the research and development of medicines targeting the MERS virus. We have antibodies stored, and if the situation worsens drastically we can finish the clinical trial in several months and apply the antibody to treatment, with support from the government and pharmaceutical companies.”

The MERS antibody being developed by Gao’s team has completed a laboratory test and has proved effective on mice.

It is expected to undergo a clinical trial by the end of the year, according to Gao.

“We still don’t have an antibody or vaccine for clinical treatment of MERS because the government assesses carefully whether it is urgent and affordable to launch the clinical trial. Pharmaceutical companies don’t think it is a profitable investment when the disease can be prevented by early intervention.”

Besides the m336 antibody, the research team at Fudan University has developed a specific type of polypeptide, which is effective in MERS virus prevention and costs much less than antibodies to complete a clinical trial, Jiang said.

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