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Infectious Diseases

Updated 11 May 2020

How a llama named Winter could help fight Covid-19

Antibodies from an unlikely source – llama blood – can potentially help stave off Covid-19 infections, according to new research.

We can’t help liking llamas with their fluffy faces and spindly legs.

But it seems that the llama has now become significant for a particular reason – its blood contains an antibody that could potentially neutralise SARS-CoV-2.

A new study published in the journal Cell on Tuesday 5 May 2020 stated that these antibodies can help neutralise the novel coronavirus, known for causing Covid-19. This comes from research of four years ago. The international research team found that the antibodies from a then nine-month-old llama named Winter could neutralise both SARS-CoV-1 and Mers-Cov over a period of six weeks.

Both these coronaviruses were known for causing outbreaks in 2003 and 2012. Now, SARS-CoV-2 is sweeping across the globe with dire consequences.

On track to a solution?

In the new research, Winter’s (now four years old) antibodies also had the same neutralising effect on SARS-CoV-2.

But why a llama? According to the experts, the small size of their antibodies makes them more likely to connect successfully to different parts of the virus.

"The binding of this antibody to spike is able to prevent attachment and entry, which effectively neutralises the virus," Daniel Wrapp, Dartmouth PhD candidate and co-author, explained in a report.

Scientists hope that a treatment plan could emerge from this new research.

"Vaccines have to be given a month or two before infection to provide protection," McLellan said in the statement. "With antibody therapies, you're directly giving somebody the protective antibodies and so, immediately after treatment, they should be protected."

Antibody therapy can also be administered to those who are already infected with Covid-19, as it might lessen the symptoms.

Is this the first time that the llama is considered for antibodies?

According to an article in the New York Times, llama antibodies were also used in HIV and influenza research. Research published in PLOS Pathogens in 2014 stated that a combination of llama antibodies can help destroy a large selection of HIV viruses. These antibodies were described as “broadly neutralising” antibodies, very similar to human antibodies.

How long before we see a treatment?

As with any medical development, more research and tests would be needed before we see this as a treatment used in a clinical setting.

"There is still a lot of work to do to try to bring this into the clinic," Xavier Saelens, a molecular virologist at Ghent University in Belgium and co-author said in a report. "If it works, llama Winter deserves a statue."

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