Hamilton lab researching spread of deadly virus

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HAMILTON, Mont. (AP) — Scientists at a western Montana laboratory are teaming with researchers at a university in the Netherlands to determine whether a newly discovered, deadly virus can spread from person to person.

The new coronavirus was identified when a man died in Saudi Arabia in September. Five others died in Qatar and Saudi Arabia in November, the Ravalli Republic reported Thursday (http://bit.ly/WnURgd ). Five other people were sickened by the virus, but they recovered.

Until an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, killed 900 people and sickened 8,000 in 2003, most scientists viewed coronaviruses as relatively harmless.

Dr. Heinz Feldmann, the chief of the Laboratory of Virology at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, was among a group of scientists who tracked the spread of SARS from its origin in southern China to guests at a Hong Kong hotel.

Feldman and Dr. Vincent Munster, the head of the Virus Ecology Unit at MRL, are studying the new virus in hamsters and rhesus monkeys while researchers at Erasmus University in the Netherlands are studying it in ferrets and in cynomolgus macaques, another species of monkey.

"The virus appears to cause severe lung and kidney damage," Feldmann said in a statement about the research. "We want to mimic human infection in an animal model to understand how this novel coronavirus causes disease and whether there is a potential for transmission of the virus among humans."

The research in Montana and in the Netherlands aims to find which species is best to study as a model of human infection. The same four animal species are used to study other human respiratory diseases, including SARS, influenza and hantavirus.

Once the scientists know how the virus spreads, they will begin working on creating antiviral treatments and vaccines to combat or prevent the disease.

Right now, scientists are hoping another outbreak doesn't occur before their research is complete.

"Several weeks passed between the cases, so we are still not sure whether there is potential for this new coronavirus to infect more people," Munster said. "Our studies will provide valuable knowledge that should help us if this disease is indeed similar to SARS."

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Information from: Ravalli Republic, http://www.ravallirepublic.com

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