Chinese scientists said Tuesday they had identified a compound that, in lab dish experiments, blocks infection by the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus.
A type of small protein, also known as a peptide, prevents the spikey virus from fusing with human respiratory cells, they said.
Fusion is a key step in replication of the virus. It enables the virus to infiltrate a cell and hijack its cellular machinery in order to reproduce.
The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, was led by Shibo Jiang at Fudan University in Shanghai.
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The peptide, called heptad repeat 2 (HR2P), has "good potential" for development into a future drug against MERS, it says.
So far, HR2P's effects have only been studied on cells in a lab dish and not yet on animals -- the next step in a long process to validate any new drug for safety and effectiveness.
The first case of MERS surfaced in Saudi Arabia April 2012.
It is considered a more virulent but less transmissible cousin of SARS, a so-called coronavirus that erupted in Asia in 2003 and infected 8,273 people, nine percent of whom died.
There have been 180 laboratory-confirmed cases of MERS, including 77 deaths, according to a World Health Organisation (WHO) toll issued on Tuesday.