The first case involves confirmation of MERS in a surgeon who was admitted to the hospital with cold-like symptoms on January 4 and passed away on January 14, according to WHO spokesmen Gregory Hartl.
The 54 year old doctor, who was from Bangladesh, is reported to have suffered from chronic illnesses but had no contact with animals or other MERS patients. Officials are continuing to investigate the source of his infection.
The second confirmed death involves a 48 year old man in Jordan who had recently traveled to the UK and became ill on December 29. He was hospitalized on January 9 with cough, fever, difficulty breathing and abdominal problems. His condition worsened and on January 16 he was placed on a ventilator. He passed away on January 23.
The man had reportedly had traveled to the United Kingdom for treatment of an unrelated illness from November 12 to December 25. He reportedly did not attend any large public gatherings in the last month or had contact with animals. However, he did receive two visitors from Kuwait from December 25 through 31.
Health officials are monitoring family members and health care workers and investigations are continuing in both the UK and Jordan, according to the WHO.
These reports raise the confirmed MERS totals to 180 with 77 deaths. The Saudi Ministry of Health reports 143 cases in Saudi Arabia, including 59 deaths.
USA Funds Vaccine Research; Fast Tracks Approval
Researchers at Fudan University in Shanghai have identified two tightly bound proteins that aid the virus in infecting healthy cells. According to Shibo Jiang, one of these proteins was re-created in the laboratory which prevents the virus from entering cells. This promising treatment is similar to one currently used in HIV-AIDS treatments.
Jiang is also working with the New York Blood Center in the United States on a vaccine which is based on a surface protein in the MERS virus. Ideally, both treatments could be used in a vaccine.
Developing a vaccine is an expensive and time consuming endeavor and many pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to invest money into developing a treatment for a disease which may not become widespread and therefore have little economic value.
The USA is stepping up to help fund this research with a $400,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to the New York Blood Center to work on a vaccine. They were awarded the grant due to their previous experience in developing a vaccine for the similar SARS virus.
President Obama has declared MERS to be a threat to public health and national security. He has authorized the 'fast tracking' of approval for tests and treatments for the virus.
Progression of Illness in Intensive Care Units Studied
In other MERS news, The Annals of Internal Medicine released a study following the course of 12 confirmed MERS patients, including progression, treatment and outcomes in two intensive care units in in Riyadh and one in Al Hasa.
The study concludes that although mortality rates are high, the virus can be contained through infection control measures. The report cautions:
"...it is clear from the healthcare-associated cluster that human-to-human transmission does occur with unprotected exposure. Therefore, there is a concern that MERS-CoV may become highly infectious to humans with sustained human-to-human transmissibility. In such an event, along with the high pathogenicity of the virus, MERS-CoV will become a major public health threat worldwide."