Llama face goofy

LIVINGSTON, Mont. - An unlikely source might be the answer to fighting COVID-19, according to researchers: llamas.

Science is waging a war against the mysterious virus covering the globe - and researchers are using every tool at their disposal. And llamas are the latest unexpected weapon in this fight.

The antibodies in camelids like llamas and alpacas are smaller, so they can get into places that human antibodies can't. That helps them to better protect themselves from viruses.

Dr. Robert Callan is a vet at Colorado State University, and he also has a PhD in virology.

"They found that a couple of these antibodies do a very, very, very effective job of neutralizing the virus. There's a lot of things that won't work," Callan says of coronavirus research, "but hopefully we find a few gems in there, and this could be one of them."

The dramatic story of Lewis the llama - who survived for months in Yellowstone's wilderness before being rescued - is enough to make him a superhero. But the 12-year-old white-and-brown camelid, who now lives on a ranch outside of Livingston with other llamas, might also be a superhero in the fight against COVID.

For Lewis' owner - Susi Huelsmeyer-Sinay, co-owner of Yellowstone Safari - that's no surprise.

"I think llamas are very mysterious, maybe I like them because they are so mysterious. It's like they have - like they know more than they let on."

The big question: will this cure COVID?

"Really, really hard to say," Callan answers. "But it's exciting research and I think it'll be really interesting to see where this leads."

Callan adds that the antibodies could help slow the spread of the virus, and that they may be more useful as a preventative than as a treatment.

"The connection between humans and llamas has been thousands of years old," says Huelsmeyer-Sinay, "but that we would something that could possibly help humankind to defeat this pandemic, that is very exciting to me."

The challenge is getting the antibody through a human's body so that it can find the virus and bind with it. Nothing has been tested on humans at this stage, but early research is promising.

Says Huelsmeyer-Sinay: "It would be wonderful if a dignified animal like a llama - like Lewis - could help us find the way to fight this virus."

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