Health authorities announced Tuesday three new deaths from the MERS coronavirus, as a group of experts met to discuss means of preventing the spread of the disease. Three men — aged 56, 61, and 79 — died of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in Riyadh, bringing to 105 the total deaths, the Health Ministry said.
At the same time, the ministry said six new infections have raised the total number of cases diagnosed to 345, representing the bulk of infections registered globally.
Meanwhile, acting Health Minister Adel Fakeih said a group of Western experts and representatives of the WHO have met for two days in Riyadh to discuss “a series of preventive measures... to contain the spread” of MERS. “These measures will be announced in the coming days,” Fakieh told reporters.
There are no vaccines or antiviral treatments for MERS. But in studies published in two leading scientific journals on Monday, scientists from the US, China and Hong Kong said they had found several so-called neutralizing antibodies that were able to prevent a key part of the virus from attaching to receptors that allow it to infect human cells.
Fakeih did not rule out the possibility that camels could be passing on the coronavirus to people as various studies have shown.
He advised people to take precautionary measures including wearing masks, avoiding close contact with camels, cooking their meat well, and boiling their milk. Fakeih admitted that MERS was a major challenge for the Kingdom.
Fakeih said the press conference was being held as part of the ministry’s openness about MERS. He outlined measures taken by the ministry to handle MERS including setting up a medical consultative council to provide advice on treatment and assess the current situation.
He said several medical centers have been set up in the Kingdom to handle MERS cases. He said the Health Ministry has advised the Foreign Ministry to tell countries around the world not to send their elderly and people with chronic illnesses on Haj and Umrah.
Fakeih emphasized the importance of prevention and said the ministry has launched several awareness campaigns to keep the public informed about MERS. He said people should not heed the advice posted on social networking sites.
Antibodies are proteins made by the immune system that recognize foreign viruses and bacteria. A neutralizing antibody is one that not only recognizes a specific virus but also prevents it from infecting host cells, eventually meaning the infection is cleared from the person or animal.
In one study in the Science Translational Medicine journal, a Chinese-led team found that two antibodies, called MERS-4 and MERS-27, were able to block cells in a lab dish from becoming infected with the MERS virus.
“While early, the results hint that these antibodies, especially ... used in combination, could be promising candidates for interventions against MERS,” the scientists wrote.
In a second study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal, a team from the United States said their discovery of a panel of seven neutralizing antibodies offered the long-term possibility that either a vaccine or treatments could be developed to fight MERS.
Although the disease has not yet been seen in North America, “the chance of someone infected with MERS landing on US shores is possible,” said Wayne Marasco, an infectious disease expert at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute who led the PNAS study.