Coronavirus: Could a llama hold the key to treating COVID-19?

May 06, 2020

A llama called Winter could hold the key to creating a treatment for COVID-19, according to US and Belgian scientists.

Researchers from The University of Texas at Austin, the National Institutes of Health, and Ghent University in Belgium said they used the llama to create an antibody which they claim protects human cells from COVID-19.

The team began looking four years ago into antibodies that could counter the SARS or MERS viruses, which are related to the new coronavirus.

Winter, who is four years old and living on a farm in the Belgian countryside, was injected with safe versions of the SARS and MERS viruses in 2016.

The scientists then isolated antibodies in Winter's blood, which are produced in response to an antigen and can help prevent future infection.

This was used to create a new antibody that the scientists say can block the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 from infecting cells.

The findings have been published in the journal Cell and are currently under peer review.

The work was initially a side project but became "more crucial" when the novel coronavirus emerged, said Xavier Saelens, joint leader of the Belgian part of the collaboration.

"This is one of the first antibodies known to neutralize SARS-CoV-2," said Jason McLellan, associate professor of molecular biosciences at UT Austin and co-senior author, referring to the virus that causes COVID-19.

The goal is to develop a treatment that could help people soon after they become infected with the virus.

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The team will next conduct studies in animals such as primates, with the hopes of testing in humans afterwards.

They hope human trials can begin by the end of the year.

Mr McLellan says the potential treatment would be able to protect people quickly from the virus.

"Vaccines have to be given a month or two before infection to provide protection," he said.

"With antibody therapies, you're directly giving somebody the protective antibodies and so, immediately after treatment, they should be protected.

"The antibodies could also be used to treat somebody who is already sick to lessen the severity of the disease."

This could particularly benefit healthcare workers who are at increased risk of exposure to the virus.

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