UT researchers say Winter could be key in COVID-19 treatment search


AUSTIN (KXAN) — A 4-year-old llama named Winter could be critical to finding a treatment for COVID-19, University of Texas at Austin researchers say.

A team of researchers including members from UT, Ghent University in Belgium and the National Institutes of Health, linked two copies of a special kind of antibody produced by llamas to create a new one that binds to a key protein of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Initial tests revealed the antibody blocks viruses that display the spike-like protein from infecting cells in cultures.

Winter, a 4-year-old llama, has help make a potential breakthrough in the
search for a COVID-19 treatment. (Photo courtesy of UT)

“This is one of the first antibodies known to neutralize SARS-CoV-2,” said Jason McLellan, associate professor of molecular biosciences at UT.

“Vaccines have to be given a month or two before infection to provide protection,” McLellan said. “With antibody therapies, you’re directly giving somebody the protective antibodies and so, immediately after treatment, they should be protected. The antibodies could also be used to treat somebody who is already sick to lessen the severity of the disease.”

Winter, who lives on a farm in the Belgian countryside, has been helping develop other coronavirus treatments since she was nine months old.

Fours years ago, researchers were studying coronaviruses SARS-CoV-1, which causes Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome, and MERS-CoV, which causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, and Winter played a vital role in producing an antibody that stopped the SARS-CoV-1 virus.

“That was exciting to me because I’d been working on this for years,” said Daniel Wrapp, a co-author on the paper that details the team’s findings. “But there wasn’t a big need for a coronavirus treatment then. This was just basic research. Now, this can potentially have some translational implications, too.”

The team’s paper, currently available online, has been peer-reviewed but is undergoing final formatting before it’s published in the May 5 edition of the journal Cell.

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