At this year’s American International Toy Fair in February, the New York Times noticed a significant uptick in llama toys, leading it to conclude that the camelid had dethroned unicorns as the most beloved creature of the moment. Perhaps our lionization of llamas was prophetic: According to a recent study published in the journal Cell, llamas’ antibodies could play a key role in the fight against the coronavirus.
Per the New York Times, we may have one llama in particular to thank: A four-year-old female named Winter with “envy-inducing eyelashes” that lives in Belgium. Apparently, llamas produce a small antibody that’s particularly effective at fighting viruses. In 2016, researchers from Ghent University in Belgium and the University of Texas began studying whether llama antibodies could neutralize different types of coronaviruses. To get at this question, they injected Winter with spike proteins from the viruses that caused MERS and SERS, and then tested her blood, which showed that she had produced two potent antibodies. When the first reports of the COVID-19 outbreak surfaced, the researchers speculated that the llama antibodies might also be able to neutralize the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Their suspicion was correct.
As the Times notes, the research on llama antibodies is still in its preliminary stages, and “additional studies may also be needed to verify the safety of injecting a llama’s antibodies into human patients.” (Also, what about the ethics of infecting animals with a virus?) But ultimately, the researchers hope that the antibodies can be put to use, perhaps in the form of a vaccine. While the injection would only be effective for a month or two, per the study, it could prove to be lifesaving for people like health-care workers. Now the researchers are progressing toward clinical trials.
“If it works, llama Winter deserves a statue,” Dr. Xavier Saelens, a molecular virologist at Ghent University, told the Times. Or, better yet, relieve her of her duty and let her live freely!