A female llama hidden at a secret location in Belgium could hold the key to conquering the coronavirus pandemic that has swept the world.
The animal, which is called Winter, is a central part of vital research undertaken by US and Belgian scientists to prevent new infections of Covid-19.
“She’s healthy and well. She’s about five years old now,” said Dr Bert Schepens of Ghent University’s microbiology department.
Researchers are declining to reveal information about the animal's whereabouts.
“We’d like to keep her as anonymous as possible to prevent anything happening to her,” he told the Het Laatste Nieuws newspaper.
The scientists from Belgium’s Ghent University and the University of Texas have identified a tiny particle that appears to block the deadly virus. The potential vaccine could also prevent the condition of people with the virus from worsening, if the research proves successful.
Llamas, and other members of the camel family, are unusual among animals in that they create both standard and smaller antibodies, which counter infections.
The smaller antibodies are easier for scientists to work with. Winter was infected with safe versions of the SARS and MERS viruses before blood samples were taken.
The Belgian team identified nanobodies, which are fragments of the smaller antibodies, to see which bound most strongly to the virus.
Coronavirus is a cousin of the SARS virus, researchers said. Both have the distinctive corona or crown shape and protein spikes, which antibodies can latch onto as it attacks.
The research, published on Tuesday, builds on a 2016 study originally focusing on SARS, which, like coronavirus, had a high mortality rate and could jump from animal to human. The SARS and MERS viruses flared up in 2003 and 2012.
“The work was a side project in 2016. We thought maybe this was interesting. Then the new virus came and it became potentially more crucial, more important,” said Xavier Selens, joint leader of the Belgian team.
“If all goes well, we hope we may be able to start the first clinical tests early next year,” said Dr Schepens.
More than 8,000 people are estimated to have died from coronavirus in Belgium, which has a population of 11.5 million. The country began gradually easing its lockdown measures on Monday.