Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) are examples of emerging zoonotic coronavirus infections capable of person-to-person transmission that result in large-scale epidemics with substantial effects on patient health and socioeconomic factors. Unlike patients with mild illnesses that are caused by other human-pathogenic coronaviruses, patients with SARS or MERS coronavirus infections may develop severe acute respiratory disease with multi-organ failure. The case–fatality rates of SARS and MERS are approximately 10% and 35%, respectively.
Both SARS and MERS pose major clinical management challenges because there is no specific antiviral treatment that has been proven to be effective in randomized clinical trials for either infection. Substantial efforts are underway to discover new therapeutic agents for coronavirus infections.
Virus-based therapies include monoclonal antibodies and antiviral peptides that target the viral spike glycoprotein, viral enzyme inhibitors, viral nucleic acid synthesis inhibitors and inhibitors of other viral structural and accessory proteins.
Host-based therapies include agents that potentiate the interferon response or affect either host signalling pathways involved in viral replication or host factors utilized by coronaviruses for viral replication.
The major challenges in the clinical development of novel anti-coronavirus drugs include the limited number of suitable animal models for the evaluation of potential treatments for SARS and MERS, the current absence of new SARS cases, the limited number of MERS cases — which are also predominantly geographically confined to the Middle East — as well as the lack of industrial incentives to develop antivirals for mild infections caused by other, less pathogenic coronaviruses.
The continuing threat of MERS-CoV to global health 3 years after its discovery presents a golden opportunity to tackle current obstacles in the development of new anti-coronavirus drugs. A well-organized, multidisciplinary, international collaborative network consisting of clinicians, virologists and drug developers, coupled to political commitment, should be formed to carry out clinical trials using anti-coronavirus drugs that have already been shown to be safe and effective in vitro and/or in animal models, particularly lopinavir–ritonavir, interferon beta-1b and monoclonal antibodies and antiviral peptides targeting the viral spike glycoprotein.
Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which are caused by coronaviruses, have attracted substantial attention owing to their high mortality rates and potential to cause epidemics. Yuen and colleagues discuss progress with treatment options for these syndromes, including virus- and host-targeted drugs, and the challenges that need to be overcome in their further development.
In humans, infections with the human coronavirus (HCoV) strains HCoV-229E, HCoV-OC43, HCoV-NL63 and HCoV-HKU1 usually result in mild, self-limiting upper respiratory tract infections, such as the common cold. By contrast, the CoVs responsible for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which were discovered in Hong Kong, China, in 2003, and in Saudi Arabia in 2012, respectively, have received global attention over the past 12 years owing to their ability to cause community and health-care-associated outbreaks of severe infections in human populations. These two viruses pose major challenges to clinical management because there are no specific antiviral drugs available. In this Review, we summarize the epidemiology, virology, clinical features and current treatment strategies of SARS and MERS, and discuss the discovery and development of new virus-based and host-based therapeutic options for CoV infections.