Llamas, the favorite herbivore of the internet and some video games have the possible ability to defeat the coronavirus, according to scientists. Researchers published a new study in the journal Cell which found that antibodies in the blood of llamas were able to stop COVID infections.
In a statement, Jason McLellan from the University of Texas at Austin and co-author of the study said, “This is one of the first antibodies known to neutralize SARS-CoV-2.”
The team of international researchers continued from a previous research conducted four years ago in which they found that the antibodies from a then nine-month-old llama named Winter were able to neutralize both SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV viruses over six weeks.
Winter, now 4 years old, also staved off SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Well, well, seems like its antibodies are valuable. It might be a good idea to make this llama the next main character of a survival apocalypse game in the future.
As it turns out, this isn’t the first time scientists use llamas to find out about antibody research. The New York Times reported that llama antibodies have been used in work related to HIV and influenza, where they helped discover promising therapies.
The reason for this is due to llamas’ antibodies’ small size that enable them to connect with different parts of the virus more easily.
“The binding of this antibody to spike is able to prevent attachment and entry, which effectively neutralizes the virus,” said Daniel Wrapp, Dartmouth Ph.D. candidate and co-author.
Scientists remain positive that a treatment plan in the form of antibody therapies for people who are newly infected with the virus is promising.
“Vaccines have to be given a month or two before infection to provide protection. With antibody therapies, you’re directly giving somebody the protective antibodies and so, immediately after treatment, they should be protected,” said McLellan.” The antibodies could also be used to treat somebody who is already sick to lessen the severity of the disease,” McLellan added.
Xavier Saelens, a molecular virologist at Ghent University in Belgium and co-author, said, “There is still a lot of work to do to try to bring this into the clinic. If it works, llama Winter deserves a statue.”
Hopefully researchers are able to find more about the llama blood antibodies so that we can move on from this pandemic sooner. But if it is successful, I hope this doesn’t turn to be a llama genocide or some sorts.
But anyways, here are some fun facts about llamas before we move on to the next topic.
Did you know…?
Llamas are a a part of Camelids, which first appeared on the Central Plains of North America around 40 million years ago. About 3 million years ago, llamas’ ancestors migrated to South America. Sadly, during the last ice age (10,000-12,000 years ago), North American camelids went extinct.
These animals are smart and easy to train, but they know their own limits. When they’re overload with too much weight, they’re going to lie down or refuse to move.
Even though they’re herbivores, llamas have been used as guard animals for livestock such as sheep or even alpacas, their cousins. Since they’re smart, they don’t need extensive training to be an effective guard.
Want a good, eco-friendly fertilizer? Get llama manure! Their poop has almost no odor and because of this llama farmers refer to them as “llama beans”. Also, The Incas in Peru burned dried llama manure for fuel.
Alright, let’s go back to fighting coronavirus from scientific point of view.
Will we find the cure for this virus?
Time flies and it’s been half a year already since Chinese researchers had identified a novel coronavirus spreading in Wuhan. We’ve seen the effects, and we know that humanity is in need for a vaccine so that all these sufferings can come to an end.
Some people have started to be dismissive about this virus because they believe they’re healthy. We begin to see people not wearing masks, not keeping their distance, and overall not caring about the pandemic.
Although unwise and it can possibly lead to more people getting infected, this belief is half true. Dr. John Mascola, director of the Vaccine Research Center at the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, sort of backs this way of thinking.
“Most of the time, people recover from COVID-19, because their immune system eventually clears the virus,” said Mascola. He contrasted the coronavirus to HIV, for which scientists so far have struggled to create an effective vaccine. He said, “In HIV, the natural immune system is not effective and people get AIDS.”
So, in this virus’ case, if we can mimic a natural infection closely enough, it’s likely that a vaccine will work.
Hopefully, COVID-19 vaccine won’t need to have updates like flu shots. This vaccine’s effectiveness varies year to year. According to the CDC, it was only 45% effective during the 2019-20 flu season. The year before was worse, with only 29% effectiveness.
“Influenza changes year in, year out, and the people who get it tend to be extremes in age — elderly and children — so you don’t tend to have as good an immune response,” said Dr. Nicholas Kartsonis, infectious disease and vaccines clinical research lead for Merck, which has two COVID-19 vaccine candidates that it plans to start in human trials this year.
Luckily, COVID-19 hasn’t mutated in any significant way so far, including the part that is most visible to the immune system, which is the spike protein. If the virus remains that way, the vaccine they make should match up with the virus that our bodies will encounter in the real world. So, it’ll likely work.
Karstonis said that because we’ve seen stability so far in the coronavirus’ genetic sequence, “I am hopeful that when we do develop a vaccine, it will provide long-term protection.”
Potential Covid19 vaccine at early stage human trials
British officials stated that this week, the country’s researchers would start human trials for a potential coronavirus vaccine developed by infectious diseases experts at Imperial College London.
Alok Sharma, British Business Minister, announced that the vaccine would soon enter early-phase testing for safety and efficacy. It has received more than $50 million in government funding.
“The fast progress of Imperial’s vaccine is testament to the ingenuity and tenacity of Britain’s researchers. If these trials are successful a vaccine will not only help us tackle coronavirus but also emerging diseases now and into the future,” said Sharma.
Robin Shattock, lead researcher at Imperial College, said the effort could lead to benefits beyond just the current health crisis.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed thousands of lives and had a huge impact on daily life. In the long term, a viable vaccine could be vital for protecting the most vulnerable, enabling restrictions to be eased and helping people to get back to normal life,” he said.
The initial safety trial will involve two doses given to 300 patients. If things go according to plan there will be a stage-three trial with 6000 patients is planned in the coming months.
Will these vaccines work well?
There are two common definitions when it comes to vaccine effectiveness. One is preventing people from getting sick while the other is preventing people from getting infected at all. Of course, when it comes to a new virus like COVID-19, this matter is not something to be trifled with.
We can make a vaccine that prevents people with symptomatic COVID-19, but it doesn’t mean that it will stop everyone from being infected. We still haven’t found out the vaccine’s efficacy to the asymptomatic ones; people who don’t feel sick or get coronavirus symptoms.
“In terms of what you’d expect for approval, it should at least be 50% efficacy against symptoms and 70% against moderate to severe disease, to keep you out of the hospital,” said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the vaccine education center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Dr. Luciana Borio, former FDA acting chief scientist and current vice president at In-Q-Tel, agreed with Dr. Offit. “Depending on the results of the clinical trials, I think we might see some vaccine become available before the end of the year, but most people will have to wait for 2021.”