UW doing promising research on MERS virus


by JEAN ENERSEN / KING 5 HealthLink

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Posted on May 15, 2014 at 5:38 PM

SEATTLE -- A University of Washington researcher just returning from a New York conference on the MERS virus says there are still a lot of questions about the deadly virus. She says there’s promising research being done right here in Seattle.

So far, there have been two U.S. cases of MERS - one in Indiana and one in Florida. On Thursday, a second case was identified in the Netherlands. The cases there involved two family members who have traveled together to Saudi Arabia.

“It’s a mystery how camels got it.”

UW's Dr. Angela Rasmussen says it’s also a mystery how people in Saudi Arabia are getting MERS from camels.

“It’s not like there’s a camel in everyone’s back yard,” said Rasmussen.

And why does the virus seem to be seasonal?

“All of a sudden it was like mid- to late April, there were just tons and tons of cases coming,” she said.

One theory is that spring brings baby camels, which means more virus and more cases.

There is currently no approved treatment for MERS, but Rasmussen and her colleagues at the Katze Lab at the University of Washington’s Department of Microbiology have done promising animal studies using existing drugs - Interferon, for one - to treat the virus.

“Even if it doesn’t kill the virus, it could at least prevent the disease from being fatal,” said Rasmussen.

MERS has a 30 percent fatality rate, but even that is in question.

“It’s possible that MERS is not as lethal as we think because there may be a lot of  MERS cases that are no more serious than the common cold that just aren’t reported,” said Rasmussen.

One thing that is known: MERS is harder to catch than SARS.

“If you’re near somebody with MERS, that receptor is only in the lungs, so you’re going to have to inhale a lot more of that for the virus to find its receptor,” said Rasmussen.

Which is why health care workers and those in close contact sick family members are most susceptible and need to take precautions.

“This mask is actually not the correct model, but they have masks that have a smaller pore size that can prevent particulate from coming in,” said Rasmussen, referring to a breathing mask.

As for the rest of us, she says the potential risk isn’t what we think it is.

“More than worrying that MERS is going to become a pandemic that’s going to kill us all, it could, however, become a huge economic problem if travel restrictions are imposed,” said Rasmussen.

The four months of travel restrictions imposed after the SARS outbreak in 2003 ended up costing $30 billion in lost trade and tourism.

Saudi Arabia has registered 16 new MERS cases and five deaths, bringing the total number of cases in Saudi Arabia to 511, including 157 deaths.

In August, Seattle will host an infectious disease conference, with MERS being one of the main topics.

Related links:

Katze Lab at the University of Washington