The US Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) has awarded a $5.3m contract to US-based SAB Biotherapeutics for the advancement of first Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) treatment.

MERS is a viral respiratory disease caused by a novel coronavirus (MERS-CoV) that was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012. There are currently no approved vaccines or specific treatments for the infection.

BARDA will provide an initial $2.4m for clinical grade product for human trials, with an option for an additional $2.9m to produce more doses if needed.

The company will use the funding for therapeutic manufacturing and testing its novel antibody therapeutic (SAB-301) to treat MERS-CoV.

"SAB has developed a unique production platform to rapidly respond to emerging infectious disease threats."

SAB president and CEO Dr. Eddie Sullivan said: “SAB has developed a unique production platform to rapidly respond to emerging infectious disease threats.

“This partnership with BARDA is instrumental in advancing the MERS treatment, while creating a clinical development pathway for other therapeutics produced from our novel rapid response platform.”

SAB made use of the DiversitAb platform to produce SAB-301, which is currently under Phase I clinical trial with the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The DiversitAb platform leverages transchromosomic cattle (Tc Bovine), which have been genetically designed to produce large amounts of human polyclonal antibodies (immunoglobulin G) in response to an antigen such as MERS.

A final report on Phase I clinical trials is expected in the first quarter of 2017, following which the treatment would be evaluated in Phase II trials in patients with MERS within endemic countries.

Since 2012, more than 1,700 people have been recorded as MERS-infected, of which nearly 40% have died.

The World Health Organisation has confirmed that MERS cases have now been reported in 27 countries within the Middle East, South Korea, Europe, the US, Africa and Asia.