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Medical Research

The Mers Virus: Is a vaccine imminent?

"We hope to be able to test a vaccine against Mers in 2016": Marylyn Addo of University Medical Center Hamburg about new developments in vaccines research.


Unluckily for the people in South Korea, the development of the new vaccine against MERS comes too late. How hard is that for you?

Marylyn Addo:

Oh, we're excited to see the vaccine move forward in any case. It always takes a long time to develop a vaccine, so there will be another MERS outbreak in the future, and we'll be ready for that then.

And there have been MERS outbreaks in the past, for example in Saudi Arabia; in Chile, we had 93 people dying from MERS in the past. Now, has the virus mutated since?

Well, the current outbreak is being investigated by the WHO, and the virus has been sequenced in that context. There is so far no evidence that there has been a super-mutation or a change in the virus sequence that explains why it's been spreading so rapidly through South Korea.

But do we have to expect that? And an epidemic that might follow?

We've known MERS since 2012 now, and there has not really been evidence to support that notion at this point in time. We have to learn more about the virus to see where things are heading.

How long will it actually take till the first people can profit from the new vaccine with MERS?

We don't know how long it will take until they can profit in terms of having it over the counter. But we are planning to test the vaccine the first time in humans in the beginning of 2016.

Now, moving to another dangerous outbreak, you conducted the first tests of Ebola vaccines - in Germany last year, and we were quite surprised about the speed of the development. Were there new techniques involved, or what happened?

No, there were not new techniques involved, but the world community really came together in an unprecedented way to move the vaccine development forward in response to a global emergency. That was really inspiring to see.

So you didn't leave out anything. I mean, it's not more risky - the new vaccines of Ebola?

No, there was no cutting corners, the safety had not been impaired. But things that would have otherwise been done in sequence were done in parallel. There was a lot of information sharing and a lot of international communication and interaction that made the process go much more smoothly and much more rapidly.

So, that's actually the way that we should take with the development of new vaccines in future?

An emergency needs a fast response. We cannot wait years for a vaccine to emerge.

MERS actually showed up for the first time three years ago. Where do all these new viruses usually come from?

Well, not all, but quite a few have their reservoir in animals, like MERS, Ebola, and the flu. So those pathogens can jump from an animal to humans and then cause outbreaks and diseases. I think we have to expect that for the future, as well. New viruses will emerge and follow the same pattern.

And 'expecting that' - what does that mean for the development of vaccines? Is there a chance to really be prepared?

Well, I think the experiences of that past few years have made us understand that we have to be prepared a little better in the future. And one of the approaches to be better prepared in the vaccine setting is to develop vaccine platforms. Both the Ebola vaccine and the MERS vaccine that we are studying, follow the principle of using a carrier virus, and an antogen or a piece of the virus that you want to protect against. And then you just engineer that. If you can essentially build on this platform, and then you just stick whatever new virus comes along into that platform, that would be a huge step forward.

(Interview: Ingolf Baur)

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