According to a US Department of Defense press announcement, scientists at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) have begun vaccinations in the first human clinical trial to test the safety and immune response of a vaccine candidate to prevent Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

There are currently no approved MERS vaccines or specific treatments, according to WRAIR. A vaccine for MERS, which was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has since infected more than 1,600 people, would be an important medical countermeasure for US troops in the Middle East and wherever the virus might arise, DoD officials said.

There are about 35,000 US troops on the ground in Middle East countries, and another 27,000 in South Korea, where an outbreak of the virus infected 186 people and stirred panic in 2015.

The virus kills about 40% of those infected, “so low prevalence doesn’t mean low risk,” principal investigator and associate director of the Emerging Infectious Disease Research Program at WRAIR Kayvon Modjarrad told DoD News.

As part of the clinical trial, 75 participants will receive the vaccine at WRAIR’s Clinical Trial Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. The vaccine, called GLS-5300, is being co-developed by Inovio Pharmaceuticals and GeneOne Life Science Inc. Modjarrad  said the MERS vaccine being tested is a DNA vaccine, according to the DoD news release.

In the GLS-5300 vaccine candidate, the DNA has part of the MERS virus, but it goes into a larger backbone that has been used for other kinds of vaccines, including those for influenza, human papilloma virus and Ebola virus, he added.

“This is a really important step that we’ve taken to initiate a Phase I trial for MERS, and I’m hopeful that this will inform studies to follow. But I can’t say exactly when we expect to have a MERS vaccine ready for licensing,” he said.

Other vaccine candidates have been tested for use in camels, the likely source of the coronavirus that causes MERS, but this vaccine candidate is the first to be tested in people, a WRAIR news release said.