Press Release

Hakim Djaballah, CEO of Institut Pasteur Korea, responds to comments made on the current MERS-CoV situation in Korea.

Pangyo, Gyeonggi, Republic of Korea, June 4, 2015 - Institut Pasteur Korea (IPK) is deeply saddened by the unfolding events caused by this recent MERS-CoV outbreak. IPK is fully supportive of all ongoing efforts to contain the outbreak by the Korean government. We provide below some clarification on Dr Djaballah's published comments and understanding of the MERS-CoV situation.
Is this outbreak surprising in this part of the World? The current outbreak in Korea is not surprising considering that globally we are more mobile as travelers than a century ago, more and more trades are happening between far away countries. It provides, however, the ultimate stress test-opportunity for any government to discover, confirm, and deal with such outbreaks; it is completely different from a passive monitoring, to an active field assessment and containment situations - this becomes more like an "active military field operation". The Korean CDC has, thus far, clearly demonstrated their response capabilities to this unfortunate outbreak and their sharing of information about the cases as they are identified.
What do we know about the virus? We do not know a lot about this virus. Two to three years of research is not enough to learn about its biology. For virologists, it provides working hypotheses on many aspects of what is new and different about it. Based on the confirmed number of cases in Korea, it may appear to be highly contagious, but we know that the majority of the cases associated with health care facilities have resulted from exposure before MERS-CoV was diagnosed in a patient and before adequate control measures were put in place. We also know that there have been other nosocomial outbreaks in the Middle East that were stopped when adequate controls were put in place. At the same time, it is fair to speculate that perhaps this version of the virus has somehow mutated since we do not have access to sequence information for the Korean isolates to compare them with other worldwide isolates, we understand that this work is underway. Not enough research has been done to date and not enough to help us find treatment for MERS-CoV. More work needs to be done and especially on drug discovery efforts.
What can our institute do to help? If and when requested by the Korean government, we are ready to deploy our screening technology platform located in our Biosafety Level 3 laboratory to rapidly develop a high content assay using live virus to screen for drugs. We can start with screening the panel of US FDA approved drugs for any active drugs for potential off label use to treat infected patients. We have a research laboratory dedicated to respiratory viruses and expertise on the MERS-CoV from our colleagues within the Institut Pasteur International Network, especially, Prof Malik Peiris at the HKU-Pasteur Research Pole in Hong Kong; and also access to state of art sequencing and bioinformatic capabilities at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, France. We are happy to work with the Korean government, the World Health Organization (WHO), and other international partners.
Is the World prepared for outbreaks? In an editorial published last year in Combinatorial Chemistry and High Throughput Screening, our CEO, then at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, USA, wrote on the looming global health crisis to do with the decline and limitations of current drug arsenal to fight existing and newly diagnosed diseases citing two examples: 1) Ebola, where there is currently no approved treatment; and 2) the recently discovered MERS-CoV; this virus already travelled as far away as the USA from Saudi Arabia and it is now in Korea. No one can predict how and where the next outbreak will occur, leaving governments, their centers for disease control, and WHO in an impossible position to mount a 24 hour daily surveillance on a "virus" which may or may not arrive; and when it arrives, there is no treatment to combat it with either. The world today is not as prepared to handle infectious disease outbreaks. The Korean government should be commended for their efforts in controlling the situation, not an easy task by any means.