The Current

Meet Winter, the 4-year-old llama whose blood might hold a treatment for COVID-19

In research that started in 2016, scientists think they may have found a potential treatment for COVID-19, in the shape of a four-year-old llama called Winter.

Vaccinated llama produced nanobodies that could neutralize coronavirus: researcher

Researchers say they are excited at the possibility that a four-year-old llama called Winter could have produced nanobodies effective at fighting COVID-19. (VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology/Handout/Reuters)

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Scientists hope a key to COVID-19 antibody research could currently be grazing peacefully in a Belgian field — in the shape of a four-year-old llama named Winter.

The llama, which researchers vaccinated against the coronaviruses that cause MERS and SARS in 2016, "produced antibodies in response to vaccination, which were able to really potently neutralize both of those viruses," explained Daniel Wrapp, a PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin.

After the pandemic became world news earlier this year, the team tested those antibodies on cells infected with COVID-19 in a laboratory environment — and neutralized the virus, Wrapp explained. 

The findings were published last week in the scientific journal Cell, in collaboration with researchers at Ghent University in Belgium.

The work began four years ago, long before the COVID-19 pandemic, as research into MERS and SARS, he said.

Winter was vaccinated against the coronaviruses that cause MERS and SARs in 2016. (VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology/Handout/Reuters)

"We're really excited about potentially exploring this antibody as a therapeutic to help fight off COVID-19," Wrapp told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Llamas like Winter are well suited to this kind of research because they produce nanobodies — about half the size of the antibodies a human would make — that occur in sharks and camelids (such as llamas, alpacas and camels). 

"That reduced size makes them potentially really interesting therapeutic candidates because they can wedge themselves into little crevices that our larger antibodies wouldn't otherwise be able to access," said Wrapp.

All llamas are theoretically capable of producing the same nanobodies as Winter, he said, adding that her species make "surprisingly good laboratory animals." 

"They take up a lot of space, but they're apparently a lot of fun to work with."

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Testing starts with hamsters

Wrapp says testing has begun with hamsters. If that shows the nanobodies can protect against COVID-19, testing will move to non-human primates, before eventually there are clinical trials in humans.

The process of testing, approval and production could take a year for a potential treatment to reach the public, he said.

"We already know that it works using human cells just in a laboratory experiment — obviously, there's a big difference between a test tube and a human being," he said.

"But if we continue to see positive results in hamsters and non-human primates, then we'll probably start to feel a little bit more optimistic about its use in humans."

If the tests are successful and Winter's nanobodies relieve the suffering of COVID-19, one of Wrapp's collaborators has suggested a statue be built in her honour. 

"I don't know if Winter would appreciate as much as maybe an apple, but we'll see," Wrapp said.

"We'll definitely have to celebrate her somehow."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Arman Aghbali and Richard Raycraft.

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