TIME Infectious Disease

Remember MERS? Scientists Want Treatments to be Ready, Unlike Ebola

MERS is another disease with no cure or vaccine--can scientists get ahead while there's still time?

Do you remember MERS? That’s right, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus infection (MERS or MERS Co-V). It may seem like a disease of the past now, but there was a time only months ago that we had similar if not equally overreactive fears about whether the disease–which was spreading primarily in the Middle East–could spread through the United States.

In fact, there were a few cases of MERS in the U.S. in May. The CDC told Americans that: “In this interconnected world we live in, we expected MERS Co-V to make it to the United States.” And though the virus is a very different disease from Ebola, it similarly transmits between humans only via direct contact–making health care workers the most at risk. And like Ebola, there is no vaccine or cure.

Right before MERS slipped off our collective radars only to be replaced by the deadly Ebola virus one continent over, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported in July that it had received reports of 837 laboratory-confirmed cases of infection with MERS-CoV including at least 291 related deaths.

So, why is no one talking about MERS right now? Cases and deaths appear to have leveled off for now, which is leading researchers–who are very much still paying attention to the disease–to believe that perhaps it’s seasonal, like the flu. “It appears we are dropping out of MERS season,” says study author Darryl Falzarano, of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). “It could be happening again in the spring. It’s possible that MERS could be more chronic, and Ebola is more sporadic.”

In a recent paper, a team of National Institutes of Health (NIH) scientists, including Falzarano, report that they’ve concluded that marmosets are the best animal model for testing potential treatments for MERS. The team has tested its fair share of critters, starting with small rodents like hamsters and ferrets, and eventually landing on another type of money called the rhesus macaques.

The trouble with finding the right animal is that viruses react differently depending on the host, and sometimes the cells won’t accept the virus, making testing useless. Though the rhesus macaques were able to contract MERS, their symptoms only grew to that of a humans’ mild to moderate symptoms, which is not as critical for testing as severe.

Now, the finding–published in the journal PLoS Pathogens– is by no means groundbreaking. But it highlights just how difficult and time consuming it can be to develop a drug or vaccine for an uncommon virus. One of the primary topics of debate during the current Ebola outbreak is whether experimental drugs should be used. The two now-recovered American Ebola patients received an experimental drug called ZMapp, and WHO is in the process of developing guidelines for how such treatments should be used. But the inconvenient truth is that even if a drug for Ebola is available, and most manufacturers only have limited amounts, we really have no idea whether they could work. It might just be too late for this outbreak.

But what about MERS?

“You cannot expect magic bullet types of cures off the bat,” says study author Vincent Munster, chief of the Virus Ecology Unit at NIAID. “The viruses we work with are really niche viruses, so there’s not a lot of interest from pharmaceutical companies. But I think this outbreak could propel some recent developments and vaccines.”

There are currently drugs and vaccines in the pipeline undergoing testing for MERS, and like in the current outbreak, they could be considered for last-ditch efforts. Scientists are not just studying how to develop methods to treat MERS, but they’re also trying to determine how it transmits from what appear to be camels, to people, plus whether or not there’s potential it could become airborne. The hope is that as our world continues to become more and more connected, there will emerge an incentive to develop and produce treatments for deadly diseases that we still don’t fully understand.

Thankfully, it appears we have some time when it comes to MERS–at least until spring.

TIME celebrities

Jackie Chan’s Son Has Been Detained in a Beijing Drug Bust

"Double Trouble" Beijing Premiere
Actor Jackie Chan and his actor-singer son Jaycee Chan attend "Double Trouble" premiere at Jackie Chan Yaolai International Cinema on June 5, 2012 in Beijing. ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

Which is awkward, because Jackie is a China antidrug ambassador

Jackie Chan believes in tough love. The kung fu legend starting working at age 5 and never really stopped. In 2011 he announced he would be leaving his fortune to charity, rather than giving it to his son, “If he is capable, he can make his own money,” Chan said. “If he is not, then he will just be wasting my money.”

Now his approach to parenting will be put to the test again, because his son, actor and singer Jaycee Chan, 32, was snared in a Beijing drug bust last week alongside Taiwan actor Ko Chen-tung, also known as Kai Ko. The younger Chan was detained “on suspicion of accommodating suspected drug users,” according to state news wire Xinhua. Both men also admitted to using marijuana, reported Xinhua.

The arrests come amid a tougher-than-usual narcotics crackdown. State media report that 7,800 drug suspects have been detained since January, a 71.9% rise over the same period last year. The sweep also netted several well-known Chinese celebrities. Just days before Jaycee Chan was detained, 42 entertainment agencies promised to boycott entertainers caught using narcotics.

Jaycee Chan’s alleged drug offenses put his famous father in an awkward position. Jackie Chan is a high-profile figure in China and is cozy with the ruling Communist Party. In 2009, China named him an antidrug ambassador. How will he handle the fact that his son has run foul of the law?

Whether or not Chan comes to his son’s defense, many here simply assume that the offspring of the rich, connected and powerful will get preferential treatment, as is often the case. In a well-known 2010 incident, the son of an official struck and killed a college student with his car while driving drunk. As he was intercepted by police, he reportedly yelled, “Sue me if you dare, my father is Li Gang!” The phrase became one of China’s most popular Internet memes.

The consensus online seems to be that Jaycee Chan will probably get a slap on the wrist. “The world is so unfair,” wrote one frustrated netizen. “Celebrities will be forgiven and released after being held in custody in 15 days, while ordinary people may be held in custody for months or even years.”

— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

TIME Drugs

Colorado Hits a New High for Pot Sales

Pot Prices Double as Colorado Retailers Roll Out Green Carpet
An employee pulls marijuana out of a large canister for a customer at the LoDo Wellness Center in downtown Denver, Jan. 9, 2014. Matthew Staver—Bloomberg/Getty Images

More than $114 million worth of the drug has been sold since January

Colorado marijuana dispensaries sold an estimated $24.7 million of recreational marijuana in June, according to tax figures released Friday by state Department of Revenue.

The figure makes June the most successful month for dispensaries on record since January, when marijuana became legal for recreational use in the state. Marijuana sales in the state have been surprisingly strong. A recent study of the market found that more than 10 tons are being sold every month, and the average price for consumers was for $220 per ounce.

In total, more than $114 million worth of the drug has been sold since January, based on Colorado tax figures.

Not everyone is joining in. President Barack Obama visited the state recently, but, when asked, passed on the opportunity to take a hit.

TIME Drugs

These Are the First Edible Pot Products Sold in Washington

Rethinking Pot Edibles Safety
In this June 19, 2014 photo, freshly baked cannabis-infused cookies cool on a rack inside Sweet Grass Kitchen, a well-established gourmet marijuana edibles bakery which sells its confections to retail outlets, in Denver. Brennan Linsley—ASSOCIATED PRESS

Stringent rules delayed sales of edibles for a month after the first legal marijuana sales took place in Washington state

When the first sales of legal recreational marijuana took place in Washington state this July, there were no edible products in sight. Due to a stringent oversight process put in place by the Washington State Liquor Control Board, no kitchens had been approved for churning out legal pot brownies or THC-infused oils or other green goodies.

That changed at 10:30 p.m. on Wednesday night when Al Olson, the marijuana editor of CNBC.com, purchased the first approved edibles, spending about $200 on products like Green Chief “Crazy Carnival Nuts,” “420 Party Mix,” and “Twisted Trail Mix,” as well as one vaporizer pen and “vape” pen battery. The historic sale took place in Bellingham, Wash., at a store called Top Shelf Cannabis, which was also the first to market with marijuana leaf sales.

The Board, put in charge of implementing the legal marijuana market, had the benefit of watching Colorado start up its marijuana market first. The state experienced issues with children accidentally ingesting marijuana edibles and then proposed more stringent rules about label packaging at the end of July. If approved, rules like putting certain edibles in child-resistant packaging will go into effect Nov. 1.

In June, the Washington Board adopted emergency rules requiring its approval for every edible product, including its packaging and labeling, before being put on store shelves. Products containing more than one serving had to be marked to show serving sizes, a rule Colorado is also considering to help combat accidental overconsumption by inexperienced THC consumers.

“Knowing the rest of the country is scrutinizing every move Washington makes in the space, there was no way this process could have been done quicker,” said industry expert Ata Gonzalez, who makes products like cannabis-infused chocolate at GFarmaLabs in California.”It’s great way the industry, and state laws allowing marijuana use, can display a certain level of responsibility in such a volatile environment.”

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