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MERS-CoV Treatment Effective in Monkeys, NIH Study Finds

September 8, 2013

National Institutes of Health (NIH) scientists report that a combination of two licensed antiviral drugs reduces virus replication and improves clinical outcome in a recently developed monkey model of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) infection. Their study, which appears as a letter in the Sept. 8 edition of Nature Medicine, expands on work published in April showing that a combination of ribavirin and interferon-alpha 2b stops MERS-CoV from replicating in cell culture. Both antivirals are routinely used together to treat viral diseases such as hepatitis C.

In the latest study, investigators at NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) infected six rhesus macaques with MERS-CoV and, eight hours later, treated half of them with the two-drug regimen. Compared to the untreated animals, the treatment group showed no breathing difficulties and only minimal X-ray evidence of pneumonia. The treated animals also had lower amounts of virus and less severe tissue damage in the lungs.

As of Aug. 30, 2013, the World Health Organization has reported 108 human cases of MERS-CoV infection, including 50 deaths. Given the current lack of treatment options, the authors of this study conclude that combined ribavirin and interferon-alpha 2b therapy should be considered as an early intervention.

Falzarano et al. Interferon-α2b and ribavirin treatment improves outcome in MERS-CoV-infected rhesus macaques. Nature Medicine DOI: 10.1038/nm.3362 (2013).

Falzarano et al. Inhibition of novel human coronavirus-EMC replication by a combination of interferon-alpha2b and ribavirin. Scientific Reports DOI: 10.1038/srep01686 (2013).

Munster et al. Novel human coronavirus causes pneumonia in a macaque model resembling human disease. New England Journal of Medicine DOI: 10.1056/NEJMc1215691 (2013).

Heinz Feldmann, M.D., Ph.D., chief of the Laboratory of Virology at NIAID's Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML), is an expert on emerging viruses and investigated the 2003 SARS coronavirus outbreak.

Vincent Munster, Ph.D., chief of the Virus Ecology Unit in NIAID's Laboratory of Virology, is an expert on emerging viruses and is leading the RML team investigating the ecology and molecular biology of the new coronavirus.

Content last reviewed on September 8, 2013