Alpacas, llamas may hold key to alternative COVID-19 vaccine

Coronavirus

In this July 27, 2020, file photo, nurse Kathe Olmstead prepares a shot that is part of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., in Binghamton, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File)

GRAFTON, Ohio (WJW)– Just weeks away from the hopeful approval and release of the first vaccine to battle COVID-19, coronavirus researchers continue to work on an alternative that comes from animals best known for their thick fleece coat.

At “Our Little World Alpacas” in Grafton, Joy and Brian Turner raise alpacas and llamas. “We shear them once a year once we get the fleece off of the animal which is about May here in Ohio.  We process it into yarn and then I take the yarn and make products out of it: hats, scarves, sweaters; anything you can use yarn for,” said Joy. Moderna asking U.S., European regulators to allow emergency use of COVID-19 vaccine 

Although they have allowed private tours of their operation, the COVID-19 restrictions have forced them to cancel two of the most important open house events they have each year at their operation.

Little did they know that researchers believe the very animals they are raising harbor small antibodies that have been integral in the study of an alternative vaccine or treatment for coronavirus.

Alpacas, llamas and camels are part of a family of animals called camelids, which are capable of producing very small antibodies.

Among  the places where research into the so-called nanobodies is taking place is the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “We basically have developed a special kind of antibodies called nanobodies that can greatly neutralize SARS-CoV-2 virus which can be used for fighting COVID,” said Yi Shi, Ph.D. who is conducting the research in a lab that helps identify what he calls “llama antibodies.” Read more on the research 

The nanobodies are described as much smaller than human antibodies and many times more effective at neutralizing COVID-19. The University says Shi and colleagues immunized a black llama named Wally with a piece of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and, after about two months, the animal’s immune system produced mature nanobodies against the virus.

“Some of these you just need a trace amount of the nanobodies to completely block the virus from affecting the cells,” Shi told FOX 8 News.

Shi believes the result is a remedy that is not only extremely effective at keeping the virus from attaching itself to healthy cells but because it can be delivered as an inhaled aerosol it can be more effective than an injection and it is much more stable than vaccines that must be transported and stored at temperatures that are far below freezing.”One of the lead antibody compounds can be stored at room temperature for as long as six weeks if not longer,” said Shi.

The University says since SARS-CoV-2 is a respiratory virus, the nanobodies could find and latch onto it in the respiratory system before it even has a chance to do damage.

“Around fifty-percent of the population has various concerns about the current vaccine,” said Shi.

Researchers believe that at least 50-percent of Americans are skeptical of the vaccines that have been rapidly developed by pharmaceutical companies because of the speed with which they have been developed and others because of the process that was used to develop them.

Some object to a vaccine if it was developed using fetal cells. “Other people just don’t like the idea of having the IV injections,” Shi told FOX 8.

The alternative remedy is also believed to be less expensive to deliver. US may see ‘surge upon surge’ of virus in weeks ahead, Dr. Fauci says 

The Turners say they have not been contacted by researchers but learned about it through a publication by the Alpaca Owners Association. “Yeah, we are pretty excited about the prospect that we own animals that could be part of the solution here to this worldwide pandemic, really,” said Brian.

“There was a blurb I’m not sure on the internet, something came through that we read about Winter the llama out of Belgium; they were actually the ones that first started doing that research using his antibodies,” said Joy.

Dr. Shi says the research he is doing hopes to get venture capital that could help get the research to trials in about six months.

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