Saudi announces 3 new MERS deaths, toll hits 105

A foreign worker living in Riyadh wears a mask covering his mouth and nose on a main street in the Saudi capital on April 29, 2014 as the death toll from the newly emerged and often fatal Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) disease topped 100 in
A foreign worker living in Riyadh wears a mask covering his mouth and nose on a main street in the Saudi capital on April 29, 2014 as the death toll from the newly emerged and often fatal Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) disease topped 100 in the desert kingdom. -- PHOTO: AFP 

(AFP) - Saudi health authorities announced Tuesday three new deaths from the MERS coronavirus, as a group of experts met to discuss means of preventing the spread of the disease.

Three men - aged 56, 61, and 79 - died of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in Riyadh, bringing to 105 the total deaths since the disease appeared in the kingdom in September 2012, the health ministry said.

At the same time, the ministry said six new infections have raised the total number of cases diagnosed to 345, representing the bulk of infections registered globally.

Meanwhile, acting health minister Adel Fakieh said a group of Western experts and representatives of the World Health Organisation (WHO) have met for two days in Riyadh to discuss "a series of preventive measures... to contain the spread" of MERS.

"These measures will be announced in the coming days," Fakieh told reporters, without elaborating.

Public concern over the spread of MERS mounted earlier this month after the resignation of at least four doctors at Jeddah's King Fahd Hospital who refused to treat patients for fear of infection.

Last week, the WHO announced its readiness to send international experts to Saudi Arabia to investigate "any evolving risk" associated with the transmission pattern of the virus.

MERS is considered a deadlier but less-transmissible cousin of the SARS virus that erupted in Asia in 2003 and infected 8,273 people, nine per cent of whom died.

There are no vaccines or antiviral treatments for MERS, a severe respiratory disease with a mortality rate of more than 40 per cent that experts are still struggling to understand.

But scientists at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in the United States have identified natural human antibodies - proteins made by the immune system that recognise foreign viruses and bacteria - against the virus that causes MERS.

In laboratory studies reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a scientific journal, researchers found that these "neutralising" antibodies prevented a key part of the virus, known as MERS CoV, from attaching to protein receptors that allow the virus to infect human cells.

Further experiments are under way that could lead to development of antibody preventives and treatments for MERS, the scientists say.