A vaccine for the deadly Middle-East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus has shown promising results in animal trials, scientists said Thursday. The results, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, could lead to the development of a vaccine for humans.

The disease has caused major concern in the Middle East and South Korea, where it has killed almost 400 people and caused over 1,300 infections since 2012. The outbreak in South Korea was especially worrying -- 181 people caught the infection from just a single patient, resulting in mass closures of schools and hospitals.

A team of researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania used an experimental, preventative vaccine, given to rhesus macaques. Six weeks after they were given the vaccine, the macaques were exposed to the MERS virus. Scientists found that the vaccine fully protected the animals against the virus.

Scientists also found that the vaccine generated potentially helpful antibodies in blood taken from camels, which are currently suspected to be the source of the virus’ transmission across the Middle East. 

"The significant recent increase in MERS cases, coupled with the lack of effective antiviral therapies or vaccines to treat or prevent this infection, have raised significant concern," David Weiner, who led the research, said in a press release. "Accordingly the development of a vaccine for MERS remains a high priority."

The researchers found that the experimental vaccine prevented MERS and promoted the creation of antibodies in 100 percent of the test subject. In the field, the researchers said the vaccine could be vital in stopping the virus’ spread in the event of an outbreak.

"This simple synthetic vaccine has the potential to overcome important production and deployment limitations, and what's more, the vaccine is non-live, so does not pose a risk of spreading to unintended individuals," first author Karuppiah Muthumani said.