The living fossil of Delaware Bay beaches and caterer to its famous spring shorebird migration may help to develop a vaccine to control COVID-19 -- and suffer terribly for it.
Horseshoe crabs — primitive looking oversized bugs of the deep without claws — have blue blood that can be used to detect certain infectious bacteria and endotoxins. For a couple of decades a half million a year or so have been harvested to extract some of their blood, which until several years ago was the source of the only approved test for these contaminants.
Vaccine development and production could create enormous demand for this testing method. Longtime South Jersey wildlife biologist Larry Niles told NJ Spotlight, “We expect that there will be a great need for a biochemical to test for contaminants, and it should be synthetic.”
Niles and David Mizrahi of NJ Audubon lead a new nonprofit group, the Horseshoe Crab Recovery Coalition, working to restore the 450 million-year-old species to population levels before overharvesting for bait and blood. Some scientists say that even though the horseshoe crabs are released after blood extraction, a quarter or more of them die.
Fortunately, an alternative for contamination testing exists — a synthetic product called recombinant Factor C, or rFC. Conservationists had hoped that U.S. Pharmacopeia would modify industry testing protocols to support its use, but instead the professional standards agency said it wouldn’t do so until its new compendium is published in 2022.
Pharmaceutical corporations needn’t wait until then to switch. One of the majors, Eli Lilly and Co., has been using rFC since 2016. An Eli Lilly associate quality adviser, Jay Bolden, said the synthetic is preferable on the basis of quality, cost, reliability of supply and ethical concerns about potential harm to horseshoe crabs.
New Jersey imposed a moratorium on taking horseshoe crabs in 2008 and their harvest elsewhere for bait is regulated by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Council. The council is protecting their bay population until the number threatened red knots feeding on their eggs nearly triples.
But medical harvesting isn’t in the jurisdiction of the fisheries managers.
Federal wildlife officials should monitor the pharmaceutical industry’s shift to the substitute for horseshoe crab blood. If this use continues to burden the harmless creature from the age of dinosaurs, the U.S. should stop its harvest for all other uses in all states.
The need for a COVID-19 vaccine is so great that companies must be allowed to use the blue-blood extract if they think that is better.
But letting them be decimated would show a pitiful lack of gratitude to the horseshoe crabs and foolish ignorance of their potential future value to medical science and the natural environment.