At least 50 people have died from the MERS respiratory disease since it emerged in the Middle East in April 2012. But doctors at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton have developed a treatment, using two drugs – interferon-alpha 2b and ribavirin.

The virus causes flu-like symptoms at first and damages the victims’ lungs, often leading to death. Dr. Heinz Feldman led the research with Dr. Darryl Falzarano, combining the drugs on infected rhesus macaque monkeys. In a paper published in Nature Medicine, the doctors said the treatment stopped the MERS-CoV from replicating in cell culture.

Six macaques were infected with the virus and half were treated with the two drugs. At the end of the study period, that group showed no breathing difficulties and only minimal X-ray evidence of pneumonia.

Since the two drugs have already been approved for use such viral diseases as hepatitus C, individual physicians can prescribe the treatment if they think it will help.

The researchers do not know if the treatment will help severely infected MERS patients, because the rhesus only mimics mild to moderate MERS disease. And there are side effects to the two drugs. Further treatment studies are on-going.

The Rocky Mountain Laboratories are part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).