Social Media Claim

This Saudi Arabian study is for a MERS vaccine and not related to the current coronavirus outbreak

A January 25 post seeks to link a Saudi Arabian vaccine study to the current coronavirus outbreak that originated in Wuhan, China.

The Statement

A potentially deadly coronavirus outbreak which has killed 107 people in China as of January 28, 2020 and infected thousands more has sent the city of Wuhan into lockdown. As cases spread around the globe, so to are conspiracy theories claiming the outbreak is linked in some manner to a patent, research or a vaccine.

A Facebook post from user Paleo Osteo on January 25, 2020 shows a screenshot of a page from the clinical studies database, a resource run by the US National Library of Medicine. The screenshot shows details of a study called, “A Phase Ib Study to Determine the Safety and Immunogenicity of the Candidate Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) Vaccine ChAdOx1 MERS in Healthy Adult Middle Eastern Volunteers”. The estimated study start date of January 1, 2020 is circled in red.

The post’s caption reads, “Trial for vaccine for "coronavirus" begins Jan 1, 2020. ‘Epidemic’ announced soon after. Standard play, carry on. Do what your TV says, trust your government, blah blah.”

The post has been shared more than 600 times and has attracted more than 110 reactions.

A January 28 screenshot of the Wuhan Coronavirus global tracking website set up by Johns Hopkins University's Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

The Analysis

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause illness with symptoms ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases including the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). They can be transmitted between animals and humans, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Previous coronavirus outbreaks include the MERS coronavirus first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and the SARS coronavirus, first identified in China in 2002, which was transmitted to humans from civet cats.

The coronavirus causing the current outbreak, temporarily named 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), was first transmitted in Wuhan, China in December 2019 and officially confirmed as a new virus in January 2020.

The study identified in the Facebook post is led by researchers at the King Abdullah International Medical Research Center in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, in collaboration with the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute.

As indicated by the title of the study, the research is a trial of a vaccine for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). The study is titled “A Clinical Trial to Determine the Safety and Immunogenicity of Healthy Candidate MERS-CoV Vaccine (MERS002)”.

Professor Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute, told AAP FactCheck in an email the trial in Saudi Arabia is for a vaccine for the MERS virus, a different virus.

“Both the 2019 novel coronavirus and MERS are coronaviruses which may have led to the misunderstanding,” he said.

“One would not expect that a MERS vaccine would protect against the new 2019 coronavirus. So, although the viruses are somewhat related the new coronavirus will almost certainly need a new vaccine.”

The MERS coronavirus was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2002, believed to have been spread through direct or indirect contact with dromedary camels. The virus has infected more than 2,442 people from 27 countries including Austria, China, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. Approximately 35 per cent of people who contracted MERS-CoV have died. Transmission between humans has most commonly occurred inside healthcare facilities that lack adequate protections, according to the WHO.

The 2019 novel coronavirus currently affecting China and other parts of the world is in the same family of coronaviruses but is a different strain to MERS-CoV.

The WHO says no cure for MERS is currently available and work is continuing to develop MERS-CoV vaccines and treatments.

AAP FactCheck also contacted viral infectious diseases expert Professor Damian Purcell, from the Doherty Institute at the The University of Melbourne.

Professor Purcell, who is not involved with the study but was able to comment on it, said in an emailed response that while the MERS virus is a close cousin of the current 2019-nCoV, “it is not the same virus”.

“So, this is an important study in this area of preventing new human Coronaviruses (but) it is not the cause nor the answer for the current 2019-nCoV outbreak at this time,” he said.

As of January 27, 2020, there have been five confirmed cases of novel coronavirus in Australia.

Australian authorities have advised people who have been unwell and are displaying symptoms of novel coronavirus to seek medical treatment. Authorities advise people to ring ahead of time to book an appointment and to allow the doctor to be aware of symptoms and travel history.

The Verdict

Based on the evidence, AAP FactCheck found the Facebook post to be false. The Saudi clinical trial is investigating a vaccine for the MERS coronavirus strain, not the 2019 novel coronavirus.

  • False - The primary claims of the content are factually inaccurate.

First published January 28, 2020, 14:03 AEDT