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Brown llama
A llama from Flanders named Winter has become the new hope of scientists in the fight against coronavirus (COVID-19). UGent, one of Flanders’ five universities, combined antibodies produced by the llama into a substance that can serve as a basis for a new treatment. The story of this encouraging find has also been picked up internationally by American news channel CNN and Japanese agency Jiji News, among others.
Brown llama

Accelerated pace

Winter lives on a farm in the province of Antwerp together with 130 other llamas. Four years ago, Professor Xavier Saelens and his team injected Winter with proteins from the SARS and MERS viruses. The researchers at UGent and VIB (Flanders’ strategic research center for biotech) wanted to find out how the llama would react to this injection, as part of their search for a vaccine against those earlier coronaviruses.  


“At the time, there wasn’t much need for a treatment against coronaviruses,” the team explains. “But now that COVID-19 is paralyzing the world, we are conducting the research at an accelerated pace. The antibodies that Winter created at the time now serve as the basis for a new antibody. UGent and VIB developed the antibodies together with the University of Texas (US).”  

Major breakthrough

It is not unusual for llamas to be used as laboratory animals. They produce antibodies that are smaller to those of other vertebrates. Moreover, their antibodies are more stable and easier to produce. Winter’s antibodies now appear to be effective against the new coronavirus, at least under lab conditions. The findings of UGent have already been peer reviewed and published in the scientific journal ‘Cell’.  


“We are one of the first to create an antibody in this way,” Saelens points out. “This ‘llama method’ is faster than ordinary vaccines, where a weakened version of the virus is injected to kickstart your body into creating its own antibodies. The llama method works directly with antibodies, so your body is immediately protected after vaccination.”  

Encouraging find

“Our studies indicate that the antibody remains in the body for several weeks,” says Saelens. “This is an encouraging find, as antibiotics or antiviral medicines usually need to be taken daily or even several times a day. However, further trials are required to provide certainty. Afterwards, we can start tests on people from the end of the year.”  


One of the driving forces behind this breakthrough is doctoral student Dorien De Vlieger. She was working on antiviral drugs that fight influenza when Saelens and Bert Schepers (VIB) asked her if she could help isolate the antibodies in llamas. “I thought it would be a small side project,” Dorien says. “Now, the scientific impact turns out to be greater than I ever expected. It’s incredible how unpredictable viruses can be.”  

Reported by
Newspaper Het Nieuwsblad

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