A health worker prepares to administer a vaccine in Los Angeles, California in January 2022 – Copyright AFP/File Frederic J. BROWN

Oxford and Liverpool scientists launch new vaccine trial for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). With the new initiative, the first clinical trial participants received vaccinations last week in Liverpool. This UK trial is next step in the development of a vaccine to protect people against MERS.

MERS is a deadly viral illness with no current vaccines and the virus has potential to cause a pandemic, along the lines of COVID-19. This makes the current research especially important. MERS is a viral illness caused by MERS coronavirus (MERS-CoV) – from the same viral family as COVID-19.

The vaccine has been developed by Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert and it uses same ChAdOx1 platform technology as Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

Currently the work represents the third Phase I clinical trial of the ChAdOx1 MERS vaccine, from the University of Oxford’s Pandemic Sciences Institute. This represents the first trial in older people. This trial will build on earlier results and will examine vaccine safety and immune responses. The trial is the first to enrol older people (aged 50 to 70), who are more representative of the population that is most at risk of severe illness from MERS.

With the trial, eighty-four individuals volunteered to take part. The participants were randomised to receive either two doses of ChAdOx1 MERS or two doses of a placebo, 12 weeks apart.

The virus was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Previous outbreaks have occurred in the Middle East and South Korea, with a case reported in Abu Dhabi in July 2023 and cases from the past year in Saudi Arabia reported in August 2023.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recognises MERS as a priority infectious disease that requires urgent research to develop vaccines.

Professor Gilbert, who is based at the University of Oxford’s Pandemic Sciences Institute said: “This trial is an important step in the development of a vaccine against MERS coronavirus.

Gilbert adds: “Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we had already tested our ChAdOx1 MERS vaccine in young adults in the UK and Saudi Arabia. Those trials provided information that was critical for the rapid development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

Following the necessary research into COVID-19, Gilbert says the door is open to tackle the next potential virus of concern: “We are now returning to the task of developing a vaccine against MERS, and for the first time will test it in older adults, which is the age group most in need of protection against this life-threatening virus.”

These trials to date show the vaccine generates a strong immune response against MERS after one dose and was well tolerated by healthy volunteers aged 18 to 50. This trial will build on earlier results and will examine vaccine safety and immune responses in older people, after one and two doses of the vaccine.