Story at a glance

  • Each year, hundreds of thousands of horseshoe crabs are rounded up by pharmaceutical companies.
  • They’re drained of their blood and returned to the ocean, after which many die.
  • While the Atlantic horseshoe crab is not currently endangered, the practice of harvesting the crabs for their blood combined with overharvesting for bait and loss of habitat has resulted in a decline of the species across the U.S. mid-Atlantic over recent decades.

A creature that has existed for more than 440 million years is key to ensuring a coronavirus vaccine is safe, but experts are warning the ancient animal could soon be facing extinction. 

Drug manufacturers rely on Atlantic horseshoe crabs to develop safe vaccines and injectable drugs. 


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Each year, hundreds of thousands of horseshoe crabs are rounded up by pharmaceutical companies, drained of their milky blue blood and returned to the ocean, after which many will die. That’s because the blood is used to keep contaminants from making their way into IV drugs and vaccines. 

“Horseshoe crab blood is harvested to produce limulus amebocyte lysate, LAL. That is a detecting system for bacterial contamination,” John Tanacredi, the director of the Environmental Research and Coastal Oceans Monitoring lab at Molloy College, told CBS New York

While the Atlantic horseshoe crab is not currently endangered, the practice of harvesting the crabs for their blood combined with overharvesting for bait and loss of habitat has resulted in a decline of the species across the U.S. mid-Atlantic over recent decades. 

Researchers estimated in 1990 more than 1.24 million crabs spawned in Delaware Bay, a prominent point where the crabs lay their eggs and a key harvesting area for pharmaceutical companies. In 2019, researchers said the number of crabs spawning in the area was about 335,000. 

Other areas have seen declines in the crabs’ numbers as well. Tanacredi told CBS New York fewer crabs are being observed on beaches in Long Island, N.Y., and of the 115 beaches his organization monitors, 75 have experienced a drop in horseshoe crab numbers. 

“Extinction is forever. These animals are on the cusp of being impacted dramatically,” Tanacredi said. “Without LAL, you’re not going to be able to produce the billions of inoculations that are going to have to come about to handle this pandemic.” 


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Published on Nov 10, 2020