The MERS virus may be treated in humans using a cocktail of two antiviral drugs, which have proven to be successful in tests run on rhesus monkeys, researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said.
In a study published by Nature Medicine, the researchers infected six monkeys with the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus. They gave half of the animals a two-drug cocktail of ribavirin and interferon.
The three treated monkeys were shown to have less of the virus in their blood, had no breathing difficulties and showed minimal X-ray evidence of pneumonia later.
The three monkeys who didn't receive the cocktail became very ill, the researchers said.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases' director, said the study was "not a game changer, but an important observation."
“But if I were a doctor with MERS patients, and I had nothing else to give them, I wouldn’t hesitate. If someone has advanced disease, there’s 50 percent mortality," he said.
MERS has infected 108 humans, killing 50 of them, the World Health Organization said. Most of the cases have been in Saudi Arabia.
The deputy health minister in Saudi Arabia, Dr. Ziad A. Memish, said doctors who have tried the two-drug cocktail have not had much success. He said the lack of success might be because the cocktail was started after the patients were already seriously ill and hospitalized, not shortly after infection like in the case of the monkeys.
“This is great news and much-needed information, although it’s very preliminary,” he said.