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Horseshoe Crabs, A Key Component Of Vaccine Testing, Face New Threat

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As horseshoe crab populations continue to decline on Long Island Sound, developing the COVID-19 vaccine presents another threat to the species.

Horseshoe crab blood contains a cell that is used to test vaccines for contaminants that could obscure the results.

John Tanacredi is a researcher at Molloy College, which surveys New York’s horseshoe crabs population every year. He found an uptick in numbers from last year, but the population is still considerably lower than 10 years ago.

Tanacredi said the primary threat to horseshoe crabs is not harvesting for medical purposes, but their use in commercial fisheries.

"Something that they’ve never even experienced in their long paleo history, I mean they’ve been on Earth 445 million years, give or take a week or two. But it’s the unadulterated attitude that these animals are the best fisheries’ bait for conch and eel," Tanacredi said.

New York has a quota on horseshoe crab harvests. However, Tanacredi said the problem remains that the crabs are harvested before they reach the beaches to breed.

Jennifer Mattei is an ecologist at Sacred Heart University. She said that the billions of doses of a COVID-19 vaccination could put pressure on American horseshoe crab populations. Horseshoe crabs on Long Island Sound are not harvested for medical purposes. However, environmentalists worry the region could be impacted by illegal harvesting.

Mattei said pharmaceutical companies could invest in a synthetic version of the testing.

"The companies do have a synthetic version that they can use, but it hasn’t been approved by the FDA, and it would take money to invest in using the synthetic variety. So the pressure could be alleviated," Mattei said.

And she said that synthetic testing should be approved before horseshoe crabs are endangered.

"What people don’t understand is that the horseshoe crab, American horseshoe crab is not in danger of extinction, it’s not on the endangered species list and there are many of them, but their role in the environment is not played out unless they are super abundant," Mattei said.

Mattei recommends a moratorium on harvesting horseshoe crabs for a few years, or switching to male-only harvests to help restore their populations and function in the ecosystem.