Could llamas hold the key to curing Covid-19?

If this works out, the llama may pip the unicorn to the title of Most Magical Animal. 

As you will have heard a thousand times before, mostly on morning news shows, Covid-19 has all of us navigating through ‘unprecedented times’. Social distancing regulations may be easing worldwide, but getting back to living the way we once were will depend heavily on finding a vaccine. 

To that end, we’ve invested millions into supporting biomedical research from some top geneticists, and through this we’ve discounted countless clinical samples and formulas thrown out by AI machines. However, amidst all the scrambling, it appears the solution may have been looking us in the face the whole time… lazily chewing a carrot. 

A study published by the University of Reading has suggested that antibodies native to camelid species, like llamas, alpacas, and camels could be the key to immunisation for those who don’t currently have the virus. These antibodies – known as nanobodies – are said to be far smaller and more stable than human antibodies, allowing them to bind on Covid-19 proteins that currently slip through our immune systems undetected.

This ability to bind to viral proteins doesn’t just apply to Covid-19 either. A report from molecular biology specialists Cell states that these selective nanobodies also have the potential to neutralise other forms of SARS, and MERS once the experiment reaches clinical trials.

Gary Stephens, a professor of pharmacology at the university, revealed that the virus’s biggest advantage when it comes to spreading and infecting hosts may in-fact seal its undoing in the end. Covid-19 proteins have been discovered to contain ‘spike’ glycoprotein: a membrane with sharp protrusions that allows the virus to latch onto receptors in human cells. But in this case, the structure of the Covid-19 cell is prime to snag and then bind to the camelid nanobodies that will set about instantly neutralising the virus. 

Stephens says that next on the agenda is the trial of these nanobodies in ‘small animals and then non-human primates’. If those words instantly incite a feeling of dread as to how these animals are being treated, you can relax. Both institutions we’ve mentioned have been injecting their llamas with individual proteins from the virus cell, and not the whole thing – meaning they’re never infected. Their precious nanobodies are awoken by the presence of a foreign threat, and then they’re extracted in small quantities. From there, the nanobodies are reproduced artificially under laboratory conditions. 

Researchers estimate that human trials will likely take place in a year’s time, and that they will likely be administered through a fine spray to be inhaled. This way the nanobodies can combat the respiratory infection at its source. 

We already had one self-confessed llama lover (not like that) in the office before these revelations, but now I’m definitely joining the club. 


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