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Llama Nanobodies Are At Center Of COVID-19 Treatment Study At Argonne National Laboratory

LEMONT, Ill. (CBS) -- You would never know it by looking at them, but llamas could be bigtime COVID-19 fighters.

As CBS 2's Marissa Parra reported Thursday, scientists think something inside the llamas could help them kill off the virus.

The equipment in one room deep inside the maze that is Argonne National Laboratory is worth $12 million. Scientists there are analyzing llama nanobodies.

This type of science has helped in the fight against SARS and MERS. – also coronaviruses.

And yes, the llamas that are part of the experiments are completely safe.

"They produce a unique type of antibodies, often called nanobodies, and they are about less than half the size of the human antibody," said Argonne scientist Andrzej Joachimiak.

Nanobodies are also more stable, and easier for scientists to work with – from afar, of course.

"No, the llamas are not here," Joachimiak said. "The llamas are in llama farms."

Two llamas named Wally and Winter are part of the study. They live on a farm funded by the National Institutes at Health in Massachusetts.

Joachimiak has never met Wally or Winter, but he has been working with them since last March.

First, proteins from the virus are injected – but he says don't worry, they don't get sick.

"We don't infect the llamas with virus," Joachimiak said.

Then, they take blood samples until they find what they're looking for – a specific type of nanobody.

"We submitted these proteins in March," Joachimiak said. "I think we got the first nanobodies in October last year."

It is a time-consuming, careful, and precise science that involves growing crystals and shooting them with an extremely bright X-ray.

The science comes at a pretty penny.

"This is a $2 million piece of equipment," Joachimiak said.

The University of Chicago professor explained with the help of the llamas, every step gets scientists everywhere closer to finding new ways to treat COVID-19, as the coronavirus continues to change.

"You can actually avoid this mutation escape of the virus," Joachimiak said. "If the virus mutates, we can still neutralize the virus, and we can design better vaccine."

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