There May Have Been a Major Breakthrough in MERS Treatment

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Researchers in Hong Kong have cured infected monkeys of MERS using existing drugs

Two existing and widely available drugs may prove to be effective treatments for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), new research published by the University of Hong Kong suggests.

According to the South China Morning Post, the medicines—lopinavir with ritonavir and a type of interferon—were tested on marmosets, small monkeys that a 2014 U.S. study concluded would be the best subject for MERS trials because of the way their reactions to the virus mimics human illness. The drugs, currently used to treat HIV and sclerosis, were found to be effective in curing MERS-infected marmosets.

The research is the first of its kind in the world.

“We would recommend doctors to start using both drugs immediately to treat MERS patients if they are critical,” said Jasper Chan Fuk-woo, one of the researchers, told SCMP. “The evidence in this study is quite strong in proving the effectiveness of these two drugs.”

Currently, there is no known cure for MERS.

Meanwhile, South Korea, which struggled with a MERS outbreak in May and June, has not reported any new MERS cases for 23 days and no deaths for more than two weeks. The country declared a “de-facto end” to its outbreak on July 28, although a spokesman for the World Health Organization told the BBC it would not declare an official end to the country’s outbreak until 28 days had passed with no new infections—twice the disease’s incubation period.


TIME Japan

Japan’s Elderly Now Commit More Crime Than Its Teenagers

Over 23,000 seniors have been caught breaking the law this year

For the first time ever, Japan’s senior citizens are responsible for more crime than its teenagers.

More than 23,000 people over the age of 65 faced police action for unlawful activities during the first half of 2015, the BBC reported, citing Japan’s Kyodo news agency. In comparison, the number of criminals aged 14-19 was just under 20,000, a reversal of every year since the East Asian nation began releasing age-related crime data in 1989.

More than a quarter of Japan’s population is now of retirement age, and crime rates among the elderly have reportedly risen by over 10% from last year’s figures despite a reduction in the country’s overall crime rate.

Japan isn’t the only East Asian nation grappling with the sudden rise of geriatric lawbreakers, however, with neighbor South Korea — also home to swelling ranks of senior citizens — seeing a spike of nearly 40% between 2011 and 2013.


TIME Philippines

Philippines Confirms First Case of MERS

A customs inspector wearing a face mask gestures as she waits for flight passengers arriving from South Korea at the arrival area of Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila
Romeo Ranoco—Reuters A customs inspector wearing a face mask gestures as she waits for flight passengers arriving from South Korea at the arrival area of Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila on June 9, 2015

The patient's home country was not immediately disclosed

(MANILA, Philippines) — Health officials say a 36-year-old foreigner who arrived in the Philippines from the Middle East is under quarantine after testing positive for the MERS virus.

Health Secretary Janette Garin said Monday that several people the foreigner had come in close contact with have been traced. She said one of them, a Filipino woman exhibiting mild symptoms, had been isolated and her test results were being awaited.

The patient’s home country was not immediately disclosed.

Garin said around 200 passengers who were on a flight to Manila that the foreigner took were also being traced. At least seven other people who had close contact with the patient were under home quarantine.

The patient initially arrived in the Philippines from Saudi Arabia but also stayed in Dubai before flying to Manila.

TIME Thailand

First Case of MERS Confirmed in Thailand, 59 People Remain Under Observation

Thai Airways (THAI)  implements preventive measures
Pacific Press—LightRocket via Getty Images Thai Airways (THAI) implements preventive measures regarding the MERS virus on THAI flights within affected areas; Thai officers spray disinfectant on passenger seats aboard a Thai Airways Airbus A330-300 at Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok

Thai Health Ministry officials took four days to verify the case

Thailand announced its first case of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, on Friday after a 75-year-old businessman from Oman was diagnosed at a hospital near Bangkok.

According to Reuters, the unnamed man first arrived in the Southeast Asian nation on Monday to seek medical treatment for a heart problem at a private hospital.

Thai Health Ministry officials said it took them four days to verify the case, raising concerns that the deadly virus may have spread in the interim, Reuters reports.

A total of 59 people are being monitored for symptoms after coming into contact with the infected man, who is now being held in quarantine at an infectious-disease clinic. Thai Public Health Minister Rajata Rajatanavin told Reuters that three of those under observation have already been hospitalized.

The announcement comes as South Korea’s MERS outbreak appears to be stabilizing. Twenty-four people have died from the virus in the East Asian country, while a total 166 people have been infected.

Thai businesses have already been affected by the latest case, according to Reuters, with shares in the operator Airports of Thailand dropping 4.2% to their lowest value in three weeks.



TIME public health

#theBrief: Why Isn’t There a Vaccine for the MERS Virus?

A treatment for MERS just isn't profitable

The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome—MERS—has infected at least 165 people and has killed at least 23 in South Korea, but there still isn’t a vaccine to prevent or treat it.

And there might not be for a very long time.

MERS is a virus similar to SARS, and easily confused with the flu or common cold. It’s also highly contagious.The disease was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012, and since then, has shown up in 25 different countries.

But a vaccine could be a long way off. Watch the Brief to find out the three key reasons why.

TIME South Korea

Here’s the One Piece of Good News if You Travel to South Korea and End Up Getting MERS

Struggles To Contain MERS Continue In South Korea
Chung Sung-Jun —Getty Images Disinfection workers wearing protective clothing spray anti-septic solution in a karaoke parlor on June 16, 2015 in Seoul, South Korea.

The government will pick up your medical bills

South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism announced this week that free insurance would be offered to foreign tourists to cover their medical expenses if they contract Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), while visiting the country.

The ministry also announced plans to stock tourist sites with sterilizing products and open a call center to cater to MERS-related inquiries from foreigners.

“We hope the measures will make foreign tourists feel that Korea is still a safe country to visit,” Vice Minister Kim Jong told reporters earlier this week, according to the Korea Times.

Approximately 100,000 foreign tourists have axed scheduled trips to the country since early June, reports Agence France-Presse.

The news comes as authorities announced that another individual diagnosed with MERS died on Wednesday morning, which ups the nationwide toll to 20.

However, the country’s Ministry of Health and Welfare says that 90% of the deaths attributed to the current outbreak have occurred with patients who already had pre-existing medical conditions, reports South Korean news agency Yonhap.

To date, 124 patients diagnosed with MERS remain in hospital in South Korea, while an additional 6,500 people have been quarantined since the outbreak first began spreading across the country on May 20.

TIME Infectious Disease

South Korea’s Latest Fashion Accessory: Face Masks

Residents of the country’s densely packed capital are relying on face masks for protection. But how effective are they?

It may be more psychological than logical. Everyone from school children to the nation’s famously fashion-forward teens are covering up in the face of MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, a coronavirus that aims straight for the lungs and makes breathing a challenge. The culprit? Virus particles that spread between people who are in close contact, presumably from saliva and secretions that are released when people cough or sneeze.

Most cases, including the 154 reported so far in South Korea, are spread from infected patients in hospitals to health care personnel or close caregivers. But that hasn’t stopped Korean residents from buying out the supply of face masks in the capital city of Seoul, where the first patient sough medical care after becoming ill.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, health care personnel or others who come in contact with MERS patients should wear something called an N-95 respirator, which has a disposable, fitted facepiece filter that can prevent users from breathing in droplets that may contain the virus.

Paper face masks, which fit loosely over the face, can also block large droplets or splatter but can’t completely prevent someone from inhaling viruses, especially if they are in close contact with an infected person for a relatively long time. Public areas in South Korea aren’t particularly high-risk locales, but the idea that some barrier is better than no barrier is likely driving the sales of these masks, some of which come adorned with popular cartoon characters and other logos. It’s also an extension of the Asian habit of donning masks when you’re sick—not so much to protect yourself from getting infected with something, but to prevent you from infecting others.

Read next: This Photo Symbolizes Just How Much MERS Is Taking Over South Korea

TIME South Korea

The MERS Outbreak Has Claimed Its 16th Victim in South Korea

The World Health Organization will hold emergency talks later this week to address the "large and complex" outbreak

South Korean public-health officials confirmed that another individual diagnosed with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome died on Monday morning, raising the ongoing outbreak’s death toll to 16.

The country’s latest MERS victim was a 58-year-old male patient who succumbed to the respiratory virus while being treated at a local hospital, reports South Korean news agency Yonhap.

According to official statistics, 150 people have now been diagnosed with the potentially fatal disease. At least 17 of them are said to be in “unstable condition.”

Authorities have placed more than 5,200 people nationwide under isolation to impede the transmission of the virus. Officials said thousands more may be quarantined in the coming days.

Over the weekend, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced plans to hold emergency talks on Tuesday to address the contagion. The WHO described the outbreak as both “large and complex” and warned that the virus would most likely continue to spread. However, officials said the disease does not appear to have mutated.

“We know that there has been much anxiety about whether the virus in the Republic of Korea has increased its ability to transmit itself between humans,” said Keiji Fukuda, WHO assistant director general for health security, in a statement released on Saturday.

“However, based on available sequencing studies of this virus, it does not appear to have changed to make itself more transmissible.”

In a small slice of good news, thousands of schools across South Korea were set to reopen their doors this week after being shuttered earlier this month, reports Reuters. At least 440 schools will remain closed.

On Monday, South Korean President Park Geun-hye called on her fellow citizens and industry leaders to return to business as usual to prevent the country’s economy from taking a further battering.

“I ask the business community, too, to continue to go on with investment, production and management activities as normal and particularly help with ensuring that consumers don’t hold back from spending money,” said Park.

The four-week-old outbreak first began spreading across South Korea when a 68-year-old man was diagnosed with the virus on May 20 after returning from a trip to the Middle East.

TIME South Korea

Bank of Korea Cuts Key Interest Rate to Stave Off Economic Fallout From MERS

The death toll rose to nine on Wednesday

In an effort to stave off economic troubles caused by panic over the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak, South Korea’s central bank lowered its seven-day repurchase rate to an unprecedented 1.5% Thursday, the fourth such reduction in 10 months, Bloomberg reports.

Authorities meanwhile announced that more people had died of the respiratory ailment, bringing the death toll to 10. The total infections now stand at 122, according to the Wall Street Journal.

As many as 3,000 people have been quarantined to date, and economists fear that a bleak mood will deaden any upward momentum the country’s already embattled economy might have been gaining.

This is the second straight year that the country has faced sudden threats to consumer sentiment, after last year’s sinking of the Sewol ferry also traumatized both the country’s people and its markets. Similarly, experts fear that worries over MERS could freeze domestic consumption, adding further troubles on top of the country’s plummeting exports, which fell 10% last year.

Public approval for President Park Geun-hye meanwhile dropped six percentage points in the past week, according to a Gallup Korea poll, suggesting that South Koreans were unhappy with Park’s handling of the crisis. She postponed a trip to the U.S. planned for next week and asked her Cabinet to execute “all preemptive measures” that might minimize the effect of MERS on the economy.

To date, all South Korean MERS casualties have been older than 55; all also had underlying medical conditions such as asthma, heart disease, and cancer. Still, this is the most extensive outbreak of MERS since the syndrome was discovered in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

[WSJ, Bloomberg]

TIME South Korea

This Photo Symbolizes Just How Much MERS Is Taking Over South Korea

South Korea MERS Wedding
Sewing for the Soil/AFP/Getty Images A young South Korean couple and dozens of guests standing together for a group photo in Seoul on June 6, 2015. The young South Korean couple became an unexpected symbol of the MERS health scare sweeping the nation after a different photo of the same group showing the couple and guests jokingly posed wearing surgical masks went viral.

MERS has killed nine people and left more than 2,800 quarantined in South Korea

A photo of South Korean wedding attendees wearing surgical masks to protect themselves from the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) went viral this week. It turns out the photo was a joke, but it remains a symbol of how much fear of the disease has grown.

The photo, which was taken at a wedding on Saturday in Seoul, spread quickly on social media. A wedding planner told the Agence France-Press that the attendees had spent the duration of the ceremony without masks, and they never wanted the posed mask photo to be taken seriously.

MERS, which has no known cure, has killed nine people and left more than 2,800 quarantined in South Korea.

Read next: Here’s the Difference Between MERS and Ebola

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