While llamas are proving to be a funny addition to your Zoom call, it seems these creatures might wind up playing a bigger role in the coronavirus pandemic. According to a peer-reviewed study, llama blood might hold the key to unlocking new treatments for COVID-19. The study details how special antibodies within llama blood can be joined together to create a new antibody with the capacity to bind the spike protein the coronavirus uses to infect cells.
By binding onto the spike protein, the antibody can prevent the coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, from infecting other cells in culture. This was discovered, in part, thanks to the efforts of a 4-year-old Belgian llama named Winter. In 2016, Winter helped scientists to study the coronaviruses which cause SARS and MERS by receiving injections of active spike proteins over the course of weeks. As a result, scientists were able to identify antibodies that gravitated towards these spike proteins and isolate the ones that showed promise in neutralizing the virus.
Four years on, Winter is thriving and that early work means we’re one step closer to neutralizing COVID-19. Regardless of the study’s early successes — and Winter the llama’s positive demeanor — this doesn’t mean the antibodies are immediately viable as a preventative or cure. The team from the University of Texas in Austin are now setting their sights on preclinical studies in animals such as hamsters or nonhuman primates, with an eventual goal of developing a treatment for humans.