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COVID-19 Researchers Study Llama's Special Antibodies

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As we know, scientists around the world are searching for a coronavirus treatment, and some researchers think that llamas could help uncover it.

DANIEL WRAPP: Llamas belong to a group called Camelids, which also includes camels and alpacas, and this group produces a specialized class of antibodies which are called nanobodies.

NOEL KING, HOST:

That's Daniel Wrapp. He's a doctoral student at The University of Texas. And he says these nanobodies are half the size of antibodies that human beings produce. He works with Dr. Xavier Saelens of Ghent University in Belgium.

XAVIER SAELENS: We had been working for a while with llamas to take advantage of the special type of antibodies these animals have to use against a number of respiratory viruses.

INSKEEP: I feel like I'm now inside a children's book, a children's book with pictures of cute llamas, because there was one animal in particular, a brown llama in Belgium named Winter.

WRAPP: We immunized Winter with spike proteins from the coronaviruses that caused MERS and SARS.

INSKEEP: The same type of virus that causes COVID-19.

SAELENS: That made her special because she was probably then the only llama on the planet who had started to make antibodies against those two coronaviruses.

KING: And the antibodies that Winter produces could bind to the virus that causes COVID-19.

WRAPP: Which means that the virus can't infect host cells.

KING: Wrapp and Saelens started studying llama antibodies and coronaviruses way back in 2016. Now they're working to develop a COVID-19 treatment from the antibodies.

INSKEEP: And they say this treatment would work differently from a vaccine.

WRAPP: For a treatment, if somebody's already experiencing symptoms, they had already become infected, this is something that they could be given right away to reduce that disease burden and, hopefully, help them fight off the virus more quickly.

INSKEEP: The researchers are hoping to begin human clinical trials as early as this fall.

KING: And Doctor Saelens says if they're successful, Winter has a lot to look forward to.

SAELENS: But if it works, since she would be the source of a drug that is really helping people, yeah, she would become a very famous llama.

KING: A very famous llama.

(SOUNDBITE OF FEVERKIN'S "JUNE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.