Llamas are smaller relatives of camels. They’re a domesticated species that have been used as pack animals for centuries, if not millennia, in South America. Properly raised and trained, they’re curious, affectionate critters. In North America, they are commonly used as livestock guardians in the west. Their fur is also used in handcrafts, although not as much as their close relative, the alpaca, which is bred as a wool producing animal like sheep.
And no, they generally won’t spit at you unless you tick them off.
And they might be our fuzzy saviours.
Winter is Coming
Her name is Winter, and she’s a lab llama. Follow the link…she’s dark brown and coming for you (or, more likely, her dinner).
She lives on a research farm in Belgium, and in 2016 she was used to study SARS and MERS (MERS, it’s worth noting, is a camel coronavirus). They inoculated her with the spike proteins coronaviruses use to invade cells. She dutifully started producing appropriate antibodies.
Then SARS and MERS became less of a threat and Winter got to be a llama for a bit…until now. Now, she’s back in the fight. And don’t worry, she’s perfectly fine and only having to give the occasional blood sample. But it seems that the antibodies she made against SARS work fine against SARS-CoV-2.
Why Llama Blood?
So, why llamas? Why not, I don’t know, sheep?
Llamas have a peculiarity going on…they share it with other camelids. They don’t produce antibodies the same way we do.
Or rather, they produce different antibodies. And the key factor: Llama antibodies are small.
Which makes them very effective. In fact the entire reason that herd of llamas exists is because llama antibody research has also been used to help us find therapies for HIV and influenza. (Llamas laugh in the face of retroviruses).
It also means they would be much easier to therapeutically introduce to the human body. They could be applied using an asthma inhaler (nebulizer). An artificial antibody based off of what these friendly llamas are making could be very useful. It’s going to take work and time, but we may all be thanking Winter and her cute buddies.
Now I want to find a llama to cuddle.