This One Adorable Animal May Hold the Cure for Coronavirus, Research Says

An unlikely hero is emerging in the search for a coronavirus cure: llamas.

The unlikeliest of heroes is emerging in the global search for a coronavirus cure: a Belgian-based four-year-old chocolate-colored llama named Winter. Turns out that she, and all other llamas, possess antibodies quite similar to those of humans, which can help scientists find a way to treat the coronavirus.

Antibody testing has become a critical component in the war on COVID-19, as antibodies indicate whether or not someone's immune system has fought the illness. So, it's a way to recognize those who've been exposed to the coronavirus but recovered or were asymptotic. Now, potentially historic antibody research on llamas published in the journal Cell is signaling hope in the dire effort to find a cure, vaccine, or prophylactic approach to abate the deadly spread of the COVID-19 contagion.

According to the research from the University of Texas at Austin, the National Institutes of Health, and Ghent University in Belgium, humans produce only one kind of antibody and llamas produce two types of antibodies, one of which is similar in size and makeup to human antibodies and the other of which is smaller.

This is why llamas of all creatures find themselves in such a crucial role. Xavier Saelens, PhD, a molecular virologist at Ghent University, told The New York Times that llamas' antibodies can be "linked or fused with other antibodies, including human antibodies, and remain stable despite those manipulations." This provides a stable and relevant environment that has led llamas to play a pivotal role in virus research efforts for decades, including in the discovery of therapies for both H.I.V. and the flu.

"Vaccines have to be given a month or two before infection to provide protection," Jason McLellan, associate professor of molecular biosciences at UT Austin and co-author of the study, said in a statement. "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."

It turns out, llamas aren't the only creatures that have antibody properties like humans'; sharks' antibodies are similar as well. But, as Daniel Wrapp, co-author of the new research, told The Times, sharks "are not a great experimental model, and are a lot less cuddly than llamas."

So Winter and her fellow llamas might just be the unlikely heroes humans so sorely need right now. "There is still a lot of work to do," Saelens told The Times. But "if it works, llama Winter deserves a statue." And for more on curing COVID-19, check out Everything You Need to Know About the New Coronavirus Treatment.

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