Camels
Beautiful Camel Competition: But they may be infected. Photo by Reuters
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American and Chinese scientists say they've found natural human antibodies to the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus, which could be the first step toward developing treatments for the often-fatal disease.

MERS, a SARS-like viral disease first detected in 2012, has surged in Saudi Arabia recently. Saudi officials confirmed 26 more MERS cases and 10 deaths this week, bringing the toll in the kingdom alone to 339 confirmed cases, of which 102 have been fatal.

The disease is believed to originate in camels.

There is currently no cure or vaccine for MERS - a severe respiratory disease which causes cough, fever, shortness of breath, and can lead to pneumonia and kidney failure.

But in studies published in two leading scientific journals, scientists said they had found several so-called neutralising antibodies that were able to prevent a key part of the virus from attaching to receptors that allow it to infect human cells.

In one study in the Science Translational Medicine journal, a Chinese-led team found that two antibodies, called MERS-4 and MERS-27, were able to block cells in a lab dish from becoming infected with the MERS virus. ‘While early, the results hint that these antibodies, especially ... used in combination, could be promising candidates for interventions against MERS,’ the scientists wrote.

In a second study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal, a team from the U.S. said their discovery of a panel of seven neutralizing antibodies offered the long-term possibility that either a vaccine or treatments could be developed to fight MERS.

The World Health Organization plans to send a team of international experts to Saudi Arabia next week to help investigate the outbreak.