This Ancient Animal Is the Key to Creating a Coronavirus Vaccine

Horseshoe crabs might just be our best hope when it comes to eliminating coronavirus for good.

There are researchers in the United States who are working tirelessly to get a coronavirus vaccine to market, with biotech company Moderna slated to begin human testing on its vaccine as early as July. However, there's one surprising supply chain issue that might make producing sufficient amounts of the coronavirus vaccine a problem: a lack of horseshoe crab blood.

"The horseshoe crab has been used for making pharmaceuticals, including vaccines, safe for the public," says physician scientist William Li, MD, president of the Angiogenesis Foundation. Li explains that the horseshoe crab's immune system is extremely sensitive to a bacterial toxin called endotoxin, so vaccine manufacturers test treatments using horseshoe crab blood before they go to market to ensure that their products are free of it.

"This safety testing is vital for a vaccine that could be given to billions of people worldwide," says Li.

horseshoe crabs mating in delaware bay

According to a June 2020 report in The New York Times, this type of testing has drawn criticism from both wildlife advocates and drug manufacturers alike, pushing some to lobby for a test that's free of the controversial ingredient. However, according to a statement released by the US Pharmacopeia, a nonprofit organization that determines quality standards for medicine, supplements, and food ingredients, the most promising alternative to horseshoe crab-based tests—known as recombinant factor C (rFC)—still does not have official standardization guidelines for use. In other words, while the rFC test may be an encouraging alternative, there are still obstacles standing between it and usage in human subjects.

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And while multiple companies that create LAL—the ingredient derived from horseshoe crab blood necessary for pharmaceutical testing—assured the Times that the global supply of crab blood was enough to meet demand, conservationists say otherwise. According to the Wetlands Institute, the horseshoe crab population in the Delaware Bay has diminished by 90 percent over the past 15 years alone. However, according to a 2018 study published in Frontiers in Marine Science, the number of horseshoe crabs delivered to medical bleeding facilities between 2004 and 2012 increased by 78 percent.

In light of a viable alternative however, this could mean supplies of the coronavirus vaccine won't be as abundant as they need to be. "Making enough coronavirus vaccine will be tough, but getting a vaccine out to the billions who needs it around the world will be a gargantuan and historic task," says Li. And if you want to separate the fact from the fiction, check out these 5 Dangerous Myths About the Coronavirus Vaccine You Need to Stop Believing.

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Sarah Crow
Sarah Crow is a senior editor at Eat This, Not That!, where she focuses on celebrity news and health coverage. Read more
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