Dr's Casebook: Shark research may help us fight against future Covid viruses

The development of vaccines in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic has been an incredible scientific achievement.

Thursday, 6th January 2022, 8:40 am
Updated Thursday, 6th January 2022, 8:42 am

Dr Keith Souter writes: The fact that new variants have developed means that the research has to be on-going so that tweaking of vaccines can take place.

Yet, while this is happening it is reassuring to know that other research is taking place with other technology as we plan for the future.

A fascinating study has just been published in Nature Communications.

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Nurse shark. Photo: Getty Images

It reports on the use of antibody-like proteins from the immune system of sharks that seems capable of preventing the virus that causes Covid-19, its variants and other coronaviruses from infecting human

cells.

This is not going to be immediately available, but it is important research for future planning.

These small proteins, each about a tenth of the size of human antibodies are known as VNARs.

Scientists in the USA, working with a biotech company in Scotland have found that they can neutralise a specific virus designated as WIV1-Cov, a coronavirus that is present in bats but does not currently affect humans.

It does, however, have the potential to infect human cells, but has not made the species shift yet. The shark VNARs neutralise it.

This is potentially very important, as we must plan against animal borne viruses that could make the jump to affect humans before that happens.

It is the minute size of these VNAR proteins that is so important, because they can get into parts of invading virus protein structure that human antibodies cannot.

Think of them as being like ping pong balls as opposed to human antibodies that are like beach balls.

Imagine the protein coat of a virus as being like a sponge.

The ping pong balls can get into the smallest holes, while the beach balls bounce off.

The VNARs bind with proteins on the surface of the virus that the antibodies can’t reach.

The researchers say that in the future it could be possible to produce a cocktail of multiple shark VNARs that could work against diverse and mutating viruses.

It is still a long way from human trials, but it could be of great importance for people with compromised immune systems who

do not respond well to vaccines.