Llamas May Help Fight COVID-19

Last month, people were looking to llamas to help make video calls fun. You can pay for a llama to attend your Zoom meeting. The articles about it brought some levity to our days when bad news seems to dominate. Now, llamas may be doing more than just calling into our meetings and happy hours. Scientists are studying them, hoping their antibodies can fight COVID-19.

Scientists studying a llama called Winter found that her antibodies prevented her from contracting MERS and SARS, which are similar to COVID-19. She was injected with the viruses, but was fine. She's not a special breed, she's just a llama. When they exposed her cells COVID-19, her antibodies stopped the infection. She was not exposed to COVID-19, her cells were in a culture.  

People only have one kind of antibodies. Llamas have two, one of which is only a quarter as large as a human antibody, so it can attack a virus' smaller weak points. The researchers are hoping this research could yield an injection to give us short term immunity. It wouldn't be like a vaccine because it would only give people about a month or two of protection, but that would be better than nothing.

There is one obvious benefit of the injection verses a vaccine. "Vaccines have to be given a month or two before infection to provide protection," said Jason McLellan, one of the researchers. "With antibody therapies, you're directly giving somebody the protective antibodies and so, immediately after treatment, they should be protected."

The scientists are testing the injections on hamsters to see if it works across species. Then, they will have to study if the antibodies can safely be injected into humans. So, we still have to wait quite a while before we know if the injection will be released.

The researchers had started the work long before the new virus, making it just luck that they could test their idea, already proven for other infections. "The work was a side project in 2016. We thought maybe this was interesting," said Dr. Xavier Saelens. "Then the new virus came and it became potentially more crucial, more important."

The scientists on the project are hopeful that the research will find the treatment to be safe and viable. "There is still a lot of work to do to try to bring this into the clinic," said Dr. Saelens. "If it works, llama Winter deserves a statue."

We whole-heartedly agree! Seeing a headline about llamas helping really shows the incredible lengths researchers are going to and looking at for inspiration. With so many researchers working on so many treatments, vaccines and preventative measures, we feel more and more hopeful every day.
May 08, 2020
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