Although some people fear sharks, these often misunderstood creatures may hold a way to help protect us from the coronavirus, new research suggests. 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 in the journal Nature Communications on December 16. These antibodies, called VNARs (variable new antigen receptors), are part of the shark’s immune system and may also guard against Covid-19 variants – such as Delta and Omicron – and related coronaviruses, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which collaborated on the study, said. Four 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, said. 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 university said. Cathay worker among 9 new Covid-19 cases; Hong Kong ‘ready to tighten rules’ “The big issue is there are a number of coronaviruses that are poised for emergence in humans,” LeBeau said. “What we’re doing is preparing an arsenal of shark VNAR therapeutics that could be used down the road for future Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrom) 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 “neutralise 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 university said. The antibodies are extremely tiny, a 10th 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. They can bind to infectious proteins, which “allows them to recognise structures in proteins that our human antibodies cannot”, the professor added. Coronavirus versus Sars – a tale of two viruses The VNARS were found to also neutralise 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 said, 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 said. 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.” 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,” he added. “Plus, nurse sharks are safer than those two.” What does your Covid-19 antibody test result mean? 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 recognise 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 those who don’t respond well to the jabs may benefit from other treatments such as antibodies. “Future therapies would likely include a cocktail of multiple shark VNARs to maximise their effectiveness against diverse and mutating viruses,” according to the release. Like what you read? Follow SCMP Lifestyle on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram . You can also sign up for our eNewsletter here .