A Hong Kong-mainland research team has come up with the first potential treatment for the Sars-like coronavirus that has killed dozens in the Middle East.
The team led by the chair professor of microbiology at the University of Hong Kong, Yuen Kwok-yung, identified the way the virus binds to human cells based on their knowledge of severe acute respiratory syndrome.
They designed a short chain of amino acids that blocks the binding and can be developed into a drug. The findings were published in an international scientific journal, Nature Communications, yesterday.
The Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (Mers) is even more life-threatening than Sars, but no specific medication has been developed for it.
Mers has infected 180 people, mostly in the Middle East, since it emerged in April 2012, killing 77 of them - a fatality rate of 40 per cent. Sars had a fatality rate of about 10 per cent. It infected 1,755 people in Hong Kong, killing 299.
"Unlike the Sars epidemic [in 2003] which basically lasted for less than six months, [Mers] has now lingered on for almost two years without any sign of disappearing. There is an urgent need to find a cure," said Yuen.
The team expects it will take at least a year to conduct animal and clinical tests before the new drug can be used.
The researchers also tested the effect of existing drugs on the virus. They found that an immunosuppressive drug and an antiviral drug were effective in inhibiting its growth in cell culture.
"If a case suddenly emerges in Hong Kong now, and the patient does not respond to supportive treatments, these drugs can be considered," said Dr Jasper Chan Fuk-woo, a microbiology clinical assistant professor who also took part in the study.
Overseas researchers have previously found two existing drugs to be effective in treating the viral infection in monkeys. All five patients who used them did not survive. It may be that they were not effective or the patients' conditions were already too severe when treated, said Chan.
No vaccine is currently available for the virus and treatment is largely supportive.
If the new drug is successfully developed, Chan believes it would become the world's first targeted medicine for Mers.
Yuen's team did a similar study on Sars nine years ago. But with no more human infections, it was impossible to do clinical tests and no drug was developed.