Sharks may be able to protect us from coronavirus, research suggests

Julia Marnin
The Charlotte Observer

Although some may fear sharks when swimming in open waters, these often misunderstood creatures may hold a way to help protect us from the coronavirus, new research suggests.

As one of the ocean’s top predators, sharks have antibody-like proteins that can stop the virus that causes COVID-19, according to a study published Dec. 16.

These antibodies, called VNARs, are a natural part of the shark’s immune system and may also guard against COVID-19 variants — such as delta — and related coronaviruses, a news release from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which collaborated on the study, said.

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Within a tank at the university’s lab, four swimming nurse sharks, all named after James Bond villains, are being studied in connection with the coronavirus research, Aaron LeBeau, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and one of the lead researchers, told McClatchy News via email.

The juvenile sharks’ names are Sir Hugo Drax, Goldfinger, Mr. Stamper and Nick Nack.

Although the shark antibodies aren’t ready for testing in humans, “they can help prepare for future coronavirus outbreaks,” the news release noted.

“The big issue is there are a number of coronaviruses that are poised for emergence in humans,” LeBeau said in a statement.

“What we’re doing is preparing an arsenal of shark VNAR therapeutics that could be used down the road for future SARS outbreaks. It’s a kind of insurance against the future.”

How can shark antibodies help fight COVID-19?

This latest study found that the shark antibodies can “neutralize WIV1-CoV, a coronavirus that is capable of infecting human cells but currently circulates only in bats, where SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, likely originated,” the news release explained.

The antibodies are extremely tiny, one-tenth the size of those found in humans, according to the university.

“These small antibody-like proteins can get into nooks and crannies that human antibodies cannot access,” Lebeau said in the release.

They can bind to infectious proteins, which “allows them to recognize structures in proteins that our human antibodies cannot,” the professor added.

The VNARS were found to also neutralize similar coronaviruses such as SARS-CoV-1, responsible for the 2003 coronavirus outbreak that emerged in China, according to the study.

The sharks’ blood was drawn once every seven weeks for studying, LeBeau told KCRA 3, and was done without them experiencing pain.

All of them are male since they “are smaller and less aggressive than females and we do not want any breeding to occur,” LeBeau told McClatchy News.

The university is only studying nurse sharks, LeBeau said, describing them as “very docile and easy to work with.”

“We have trained them, so they are basically like dogs,” he said.

LeBeau explained that shark antibodies come in four different types, and nurse sharks have all four.

“Great whites only have two types and hammerheads three,” LeBeau added. “Plus, nurse sharks are safer than those two.”

When could this potential treatment be ready?

It may take two to five years for a developed coronavirus therapy involving shark antibodies to be ready for testing, according to LeBeau.

For testing in humans, the earliest these antibodies could be ready is in five years, the professor said.

“Shark antibodies are believed to be non-immunogenic meaning that the human immune system will recognize them as human,” LeBeau explained. “Thus, they can be safely administered to humans without side effects. This is because shark antibodies share many protein similarities with human antibodies.”

“This new class of drug is cheaper and easier to manufacture than human antibodies,” the release added.

Amid the pandemic, vaccines are the “bedrock” of protection against the virus, the news release noted, but for those who don’t respond well to the jabs, they may benefit from other treatments such as antibodies.

“Future therapies would likely include a cocktail of multiple shark VNARs to maximize their effectiveness against diverse and mutating viruses,” according to the release.