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By Prof Sarah Gilbert, MERS Programme Leader

prof-sarah-gilbert-2.jfifMiddle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) has been identified as one of the most worrying newly emerging outbreak pathogens by many global agencies and expert groups. The disease is now endemic in Saudi Arabia and some other countries in the Middle East, with spread to several other regions, including a recent outbreak in Korea. More than 1600 cases of severe acute respiratory disease, with 580 deaths in 26 countries have been reported so far. The disease is caused by MERS coronavirus and is spread by droplet infection of the airways.

Camels are now recognised as the source of zoonotic infections and occupational exposure can result in human infections. Human to human transmission is known to occur, with mild symptoms in otherwise healthy people but severe and chronic infections in people with compromised immune systems. Several outbreaks within hospitals have also occurred. MERS has been chosen as a very high priority disease for accelerated vaccine development by the WHO, international vaccine experts (polled by Science magazine, 1 January 2016) and by members of the UK Vaccines Research and Development Network.

A research group led by Professor Sarah Gilbert at the Jenner Institute in Oxford has developed a vaccine against MERS, utilising the Institute’s proprietary ChAdOx1 simian adenovirus vector to deliver the MERS coronovirus spike protein. In early preclinical studies, it was possible to demonstrate induction of high titre neutralising antibodies with a single dose, and the group is now working with collaborators in Saudi Arabia and Morocco to undertake vaccine studies in camels. The same vaccine could also be used in humans, and Prof Gilbert’s group has recently been awarded a grant from the UK Medical Research Council (MRC), working with Professor Vincenzo Cerundolo at the MRC Human Immunology Unit, Oxford, to conduct a Phase I trial in the UK, followed by a further trial in Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, the best way to prevent MERS infections in humans will be to control the disease in camels, but by developing one vaccine for both humans and livestock it will be possible to reduce the costs of preventing further MERS infections in humans by reducing transmission in both humans and animals.

Dr Naif Khalaf Alharbi, Postdoctoral Virologist at the King Abdullah International Medical Research Center (KAIMRC) and visiting researcher at the Jenner Institute:

dr-nafi-alharbi.jfif"I am excited to be involved in the development of this vaccine from the early stages in the Jenner Institute, University of Oxford. As a principal investigator at the King Abdullah International Medical Research Centre (KAIMRC), Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, it is my pleasure to collaborate with the esteemed Jenner Institute to test this vaccine in camels, with a generous intramural grant from KAIMRC.This is the first MERS-CoV vaccine to be tested in dromedary camels in the Arabian Peninsula and KAIMRC has national collaborators to achieve this goal.

At KAIMRC, we are very enthusiastic about continuing this collaboration with the Jenner Institute to further test the vaccine in humans, with a grant from the UK MRC to the Oxford collaborators.

This will be the first vaccine to be trialled in Saudi human populations and we are working closely with authorities in Saudi Arabia to conduct the first ever Phase I clinical vaccine trial in Saudi Arabia."