Horseshoe Crabs in COVID-19 Vaccine Research

By Jessica Mejia

As the world looks forward to a COVID-19 vaccine, one organism and its copper-based, blue blood is playing a major role helping to ensure prevention of contaminants in human health treatments.

Around for more than 450 million years, horseshoe crabs have earned the nickname the “living fossil.” They have been in the spotlight over the past couple months while a COVID-19 vaccine is being developed.

What do horseshoe crabs have to do with human health? “Almost everything,” said John Tanacredi, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Coastal Oceans Monitoring, otherwise known as CERCOM. “No one talks about horseshoe crabs in the perspective of human health.”

Extremely sensitive to toxins, Limulus amoebocyte lysate, or LAL, is the unique blue blood contained within the horseshoe crab. When the time comes to deploy the COVID-19 vaccine, every single vaccine will have to be manufactured without contamination, using horseshoe crab blood, in order to prevent sepsis.

Tanacredi explained horseshoe crabs have been playing a vital role in the biomedical industry for the past 40 years. But, with only four species of horseshoe crabs in existence, scientists have noticed a decline in all these species.

Habitat loss, pollution and overfishing are all human-caused factors in the decline. According to scientists, within the biomedical industry in the United States, it is estimated that 50,000 horseshoe crabs die in the blood extraction process every year.

According to scientists, without horseshoe crabs, the biomedical industry will face a collapse.

With “no synthetic [horseshoe crab blood] substitute as accurate or efficient,” Tanacredi explains that preventing the decline of the horseshoe crab is crucial to human health.

“Even for those people who could care less about wildlife, looking purely in self-interest, the impact of horseshoe crabs is vital to our economy and health standard of living,” said David Wheeler, executive director at Conserve Wildlife Foundation.

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Jessica Mejia is a freelance journalist and graduate student at the University of Montana.

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