-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas
TUESDAY, Feb. 19 (HealthDay News) -- The new SARS-like
"coronavirus" that first emerged in the Middle East can invade the
lungs and immune system as easily as the common cold, according to
a new study.
But in the event of a large-scale outbreak, researchers in
Switzerland found the virus -- known as HCoV-EMC -- may be
treatable with components of the immune system, known as
interferons. This immunotherapy has shown promise in the treatment
of the respiratory disease SARS and hepatitis C, the study authors
"Surprisingly, this coronavirus grows very efficiently on human epithelial cells," said study co-author Volker Thiel of the Institute of Immunobiology at Kantonal Hospital in St. Gallen, in a news release from the American Society for Microbiology. Epithelial cells line hollow organs and glands.
"The other thing we found is that the viruses [HCoV-EMC, SARS, and the common cold virus] are all similar in terms of host responses: they don't provoke a huge innate immune response," he said.
The study was published online Feb. 19 in
HCoV-EMC, which may have jumped from animal to human very
recently, was first isolated in June after a man in Saudi Arabia
died from a severe respiratory infection and kidney failure.
Following his death, health officials identified 11 more people
infected with the virus, the latest in Great Britain. So far, six
of the 12 people with known infections have died. Nearly all
patients have lived or traveled in the Middle East.
Concerns have been raised that the new strain could trigger a
pandemic similar to the SARS outbreak of 2002-03, which infected
more than 8,000 people and killed 774.
"We don't know whether the cases we observed are the tip of the iceberg, or whether many more people are infected without showing severe symptoms," noted Thiel.
The World Health Organization on Saturday said that doctors
should test patients for the new coronavirus if they have
unexplained pneumonia or unexplained complicated respiratory
illness not responding to treatment.
So far, no cases of the coronavirus have been reported in the
United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control
To test the new virus, the researchers used cultured bronchial
cells to mimic the lining of the human airway. Although this lining
is a key barrier against respiratory viruses, the study revealed
these cells didn't mount a big defense against HCoV-EMC. Instead,
they found human lungs are highly susceptible to the virus, which
can multiply at a faster initial rate than SARS.
The study authors noted, however, that pre-treating the airway
with proteins that play a critical role in immune response to
infections -- known as lambda-type interferons -- significantly
reduced the number of infected cells.
Although their findings suggest there is promise for an
effective treatment against HCoV-EMC, the researchers added ongoing
cooperation between scientists and health agencies around the world
is needed to prevent outbreaks of this virus and other
The World Health Organization provides more information on
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