A group of nurses prepare to check people during the SARS outbreak. Photo: AFP/Patrick Lin

In what could be a major breakthrough for medical science worldwide, researchers at the University of Hong Kong led by renewed microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung claim they have identified a chemical substance that could exterminate numerous viruses causing severe or life-threatening respiratory diseases, including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

The drug compound they developed could even be used to tackle unknown viruses that may emerge as epidemics.

Yuen, who led a vital research project that ultimately vanquished the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong in 2003, said the chemical compound, AM580, would not only target a specific or small number of viruses, but also break the pathway that may otherwise allow many types of viruses to replicate in the human body.

The study of these diseases and their pathology showed that coronaviruses often use the lipid membrane synthesis pathway of a human host to produce intracellular lipid membrane vesicles as the machinery for producing virus particles and eventually defeat the host’s immune system.

AM580, he said, could prevent the formation of double membrane vesicles, stopping the viruses from multiplying and then curing the patient.

The HKU researchers said they had tested the chemical on lab rats during a two-year study and found that it could effectively stop the replication of a host of flu viruses such as H1N1, H5N1, H7N9, the coronaviruses that cause SARS and MERS, the mosquito-borne Zika virus as well as Enterovirus 71, which leads to hand, foot and mouth disease.


A 2003 file photo shows masked passengers inside an almost empty train in Hong Kong, during the city’s SARS outbreak that year. Photo: AFP

Yuen said he was confident that it would also work on viruses yet to emerge, as an antiviral drug targeting a host pathway that is essential for virus replication.

“This is very broad-spectrum and it is quite potent. It is more broad-spectrum than the previous drugs that we know about and use to treat patients,” he said.

“It can be taken by injection, also by the oral route, and also by an intranasal spray. This is very important [because] many emerging infectious diseases, like influenza or SARS or MERS, are respiratory tract infections. If the compound can be administered by inhalation, that is a distinct advantage,” said Yuen.

He said a chemical derivative of AM580 is already being used as a cancer drug in Japan with few side effects, and he believed that AM580 would also be safe to use as a novel, broad-spectrum antiviral.

Yuen said some investors had already expressed interest in manufacturing the medication within five years for epidemic control and early treatment.

A US provisional patent application has been filed for this important discovery. The finding is now published in leading scientific journal Nature Communications.

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