After immunizing Tyson, a 12 year-old alpaca in Germany, with virus proteins, the team at the Karolinska Institute have isolated tiny antibodies – known as nanobodies – from his blood that bind to the same part of the virus as human antibodies and could block the infection.
They hope this can form the basis of a treatment for COVID 19 or eventually a vaccine against it, though the work is at an early stage.
“We know that it is the antibodies that are directed to the same very, very precise part of the virus that are important and that is what we have engineered with this antibody from Tyson,” Gerald McInerney, head of the team at Karolinska said.
“In principle, all the evidence would suggest it will work very well in humans, but it is a very complex system.”
Llamas and other members of camel family – as well as sharks – are known to produce nanobodies, which are far smaller than the full-size antibodies produced by humans, and therefore potentially easier for scientists to work with.
A vaccine may still be some way off.
“We will now move forward to going into in-vivo studies, maybe with mice or hamsters or other animals that can be used as a model for COVID 19 disease, but the next step after that we really can’t say,” McInerney said.
As for Tyson, he has done his job.
“Tyson is 12 years old, I believe, and he may be looking at retirement soon,” McInerney said. “So he’ll live out his life on his farm back in Germany.”