A llama named Winter could hold the key to COVID-19 treatment

Khevna Pandit
Thursday, 7 May 2020

Llamas have special antibodies that are known to blunt the effects of coronaviruses.

Amidst the frantic search for vaccines and possible cures that have led to a global race amongst experts, the world has encountered a potential, unlikely saviour. A fluffy, cocoa-coloured llama named Winter could hold the cure to the novel coronavirus.

Living in a research farm in Belgium with about 130 other llamas and alpacas, Winter and her fellow species have natural antibodies in them that are known to blunt the effects of the virus. The research conducted on this has shown promising results during the laboratory test, and scientists have observed that the antibodies are actively helping the novel coronavirus to infect and enter the cells.

Winter, the llama and more of her kind, are now a cuddly face of a serious scientific quest that creates coronavirus drugs inspired by the targeted responses mustered by the immune system. Winter's antibodies, which are also known as the niche kind, are a prized-possession for the scientists as they are slow to degrade into the body, and can get into nooks and crannies easily.

While the closest vaccine development is more than a year away, antibody therapy in today's time has become a promising weapon to combat the spread of the disease.

Winter's part in this pandemic goes back to 2016 when the researchers from the farm immunised her with spike proteins from MERS and SARS. "Then they drew her blood and isolated antibodies, one of which showed potential for neutralising MERS, and another of which neutralised SARS," Daniel Wrapp, a co-author of the study and graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, was quoted in an interview with The Washington Post.

The team at Texas, which was working unitedly with people at the US National Institutes of Health & Ghent University in Belgium, was trying to develop a comprehensive vaccine for human coronaviruses, four of which are common and cause cold-like symptoms.

"Although the researchers were hoping to find a single antibody that could target all the coronaviruses, the "consolation prize" was finding two that showed promise against MERS and SARS," Wrapp was quoted saying.

And while Wrapp never met Winter personally, who was randomly selected from a group of llamas, he believes she is an essential asset for the research. "She's kind of a superstar for this," he says.

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