A mysterious disease in the Middle East has triggered international alarms for two big reasons. The virus is often deadly: It has killed almost half of the 114 people known to have caught it. And there's no clear treatment for it.
Now scientists might have made some progress toward fixing that second problem.
A combination of two drugs commonly used for other viral infections reduced the symptoms of the Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, in monkeys, virologists report Sunday in the journal Nature Medicine.
"If a physician is faced with a very sick person with MERS, they at least now have an option — a combination of drugs that has been used on many, many patients — even though the scientific evidence is small [for its effectiveness]," says the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci.
MERS causes pneumonia and breathing problems in both people and monkeys. But when virologists at NIAID gave macaque monkeys ribavirin and interferon alfa-2b, infected animals developed less damage in their lungs. The drugs also improved the sick monkeys' breathing and slowed down the virus's growth.
The good news is that that the drug combination has been used for decades to treat hepatitis C, Fauci says. So the therapy is already approved for that purpose.
"The cautious news is that the number of animals tested is very small — just three animals in each group," Fauci tells Shots. "It would be clearly premature to make any recommendation for treatment based on an animal model with so few [animals] tested."
Still, Fauci says the findings are important because they give doctors an option to try and save a person from MERS. "Individual physicians will have to make up their own mind whether it's worth the last-ditch effort." Ribavirin and interferon together can have serious side effects, such as fever, diarrhea and skin rashes.
In the study, the drugs were given just eight hours after the monkeys had been infected with MERS. So it's unknown if the therapy would be effective after symptoms have already appeared.
But Fauci says that shouldn't stop doctors from considering the treatment. "When you're in a situation that you have a patient dying, you don't ask the question, 'This was used early [in the infection], so should I not try it?' "
Since MERS was first detected in Saudi Arabia in September 2012, researchers around the world have rushed to build animal models of the disease and to search for the source of the virus. Studies have detected signs of MERS in camels and bats. But it's still unknown exactly how people are catching the virus.
The vast majority of MERS cases has occurred in the Middle East. But a few travelers have brought the virus to France, Italy, the U.K. and Tunisia.