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It’s hard to think of a more unlikely candidate for holding the key to unlocking a vaccine for COVID-19 than a 4-year-old Belgian llama named Winter.

But the mocha-colored llama, like others of her species, carries antibodies in her blood capable of fighting powerful viruses. Antibodies from other llamas have been used to develop successful treatments for HIV and certain strains of the flu.

In the case of Winter, scientists used her antibodies — blood proteins formed in response to, and potentially capable of counteracting, specific toxins — to successfully neutralize two other forms of coronavirus: SARS and MERS, in experiments that began in 2016. Scientists were wrapping up the results of that research earlier this year when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, providing a new test opportunity for Winter’s blood proteins.

According to an abstract of a report on that research, which appeared in the scholarly journal Cell last week, Winter added COVID-19 to the list of viruses her antibodies have KO’d. Llama antibodies are now being tested in hamsters as a possible deterrent to COVID-19. If successful, testing will eventually involve humans.

My only personal encounter with a llama involved being hit by a well-placed wad of phlegm spit by a West Virginia-based cousin of the Belgian beast of burden, who, like so many these days, didn’t like being approached by a reporter. If a human vaccine becomes a reality thanks to llama antibodies, I would gladly volunteer for target duty.


Sign of the times: My informal survey shows that surgical masks have replaced sunglasses, air fresheners, graduation tassels, headphone cords and dreamcatchers as the state’s most popular rear-view mirror hangings.


Could Have Been Worse Department: Any embarrassment Gov. Jim Justice may have experienced over a televised word-slip incident last week pales in comparison to what the responsible U.S. Supreme Court justice must be feeling after the sounds of a toilet being used and flushed could be heard during a teleconference hearing on Wednesday.

A cheeky investigative piece that created a splash in Slate Magazine late Friday concluded that the guilty party was 81-year-old Justice Stephen Breyer. While the oldest, er, sitting justice was called out by Slate for failing to operate his “mute” switch, he may have merely been making a statement.

The case being argued involved excluding debt-collection attempts by the federal government from a ban on robocalls. In my view, the judicial sound effect was appropriate.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at, 304-348-5169 or follow

@rsteelhammer on Twitter.