Lab monkeys infected with coronavirus in desperate bid to find vaccine

Monkeys have been infected with a deadly form of coronavirus in a bid to find a successful vaccine for the current COVID-19 epidemic.

An experimental antiviral vaccine called remdesivir was found to cure rhesus macaques infected with Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV).

More than 2,400 have been infected with the strain of the virus, which the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control estimate has killed 910 humans.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) typical case of MERS includes fever, cough, and/or shortness of breath.

Pneumonia is common and some people have been known to suffer organ failure or septic shock. Around 35% of those who contract it die.

US National Institutes of Health (NIH) scientists say the wonder drug was found to be successful when given to macaques before they were infected and are now hopeful they can trial it with the COVID-19 (Wuhan) epidemic, which is part of the same family of viruses.

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Several other clinical trials of remdesivir for COVID-19 believed to be under way in China.

Meanwhile, some sickly human patients with COVID-19 have already taken the experimental drug in a bid to recover.

The findings of the study, published this month, revealed three groups of monkeys were treated with remdesivir.

Detailing the findings, Drug Target Review report one group of primates, housed at a lab in Hamilton, Montana, received the drug 24 hours before infection with MERS-CoV.

Another group were given the vaccine some 12 hours after infection and another control group did not receive any treatment.

They were then observed for six days, and those treated a day in advance showed no symptoms.

Those treated after infection had less damage to their lungs than the control animals – the fate of which are not known.

The NIH scientists say the results support further clinical trials of remdesivir for COVID-19, which has so far claimed over 2,400 lives worldwide.

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In a statement NIH said: "MERS-CoV is closely related to the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) that has grown to be a global public health emergency since cases were first detected in Wuhan, China, in December.

"Remdesivir has previously protected animals against a variety of viruses in lab experiments. The drug has been shown experimentally to effectively treat monkeys infected with Ebola and Nipah viruses.

"The scientists indicate that the promising study results support additional clinical trials of remdesivir for MERS-CoV and 2019-nCoV. At least two clinical trials of remdesivir for 2019-nCoV are under way in China, and other patients with 2019-nCoV infection have received the drug under a compassionate use protocol."

Believed to have originated in camels the MERS-CoV is transmitted primarily from animals to people, but transmission from people to people is also possible.

Cases identified outside the Middle East, including the US and the UK are people who were infected in the Middle East and travelled. Approximately 80% of human cases reported by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The UK's RSPCA estimates thousands of monkeys, mainly macaques and marmosets, are used in research and testing.

RSPCA say: "In the UK, around 3,000 monkeys are used annually. Much of this use is to develop and test the safety and effectiveness of potential human medicines and vaccines. Primates are also used for studying how the brain functions and in research relating to human reproduction."

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The demand is said to be growing.

In the US a record 71,317 monkeys were used in labs in 2010 and a similar number were tested on in 2018, when 70,797 monkeys were used.

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