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Novartis and Merck Drugs Don’t Stop SARS-Related Virus in Study

March 13 (Bloomberg) -- Scientists have pinpointed a protein that a new SARS-related virus uses to infect healthy cells, in a study that may lead to treatments against it.

The new coronavirus that has killed at least nine people in the past year latches to a protein called DPP4 on the surface of cells, researchers from Erasmus Medical Center and Utrecht University in the Netherlands wrote in the journal Nature today. It’s the same protein that diabetes drugs such as Merck & Co.’s Januvia and Novartis AG’s Galvus are designed to block, though they were ineffective against the new virus, the study found.

Commercially available antibodies did prevent the virus from infecting cells in lab dish experiments, though they probably won’t be useful as treatments because they would kill cells bearing DPP4, potentially causing damage to the lungs and kidneys, said Bart Haagmans, an Erasmus virologist who led the research. He and colleagues are now testing an experimental vaccine in ferrets and monkeys that’s designed to block infection without causing damage, though it’s years away from being available for human use.

“It’s important that we think of strategies for these emerging coronaviruses to develop vaccines in a fast and safe way,” Haagmans said in a telephone interview from Rotterdam today. “It’s a difficulty to get these vaccines quickly developed.”

Januvia and Galvus may not have worked because the coronavirus attaches to a different site on DPP4 to the area that those drugs block, Haagmans said. He and colleagues are working on a follow-up study to hone in on the exact site where the virus docks.

Circulating Widely

A study reported last month showed the virus is susceptible to a class of drugs called interferons that are approved to treat hepatitis C infection, suggesting they could be used as treatments.

The new virus, which is related to the one that killed 774 people in an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in 2002 and 2003, is known to have infected 15 people in the past year, and killed nine, according to a March 12 statement from the World Health Organization. Eight of the cases and six of the deaths were reported in Saudi Arabia.

The virus is probably circulating more widely, but most cases are showing few or no symptoms, Haagmans said. The virus is genetically similar to a coronavirus found in bats, suggesting it may have jumped from the winged mammals to humans via an intermediate animal such as sheep or goats, Haagmans said.

The two viruses are related “only like brothers who behave very differently,” Gregory Hartl, a spokesman for the Geneva-based WHO, said in an e-mail today. The new virus shouldn’t be described as SARS-like because the two pathogens are genetically distinct, he said.

The new coronavirus can infect the lining of a person’s airways faster than the SARS bug, according to a study published last month, though researchers still don’t know how easy it is to transmit from person to person.

To contact the reporter on this story: Simeon Bennett in Geneva at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Phil Serafino at

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