SALISBURY, Maryland (WBAL) — The Maryland horseshoe crab is playing a vital role in ensuring the coronavirus vaccine is clean and safe to use.
The ancient sea creatures are serving as medicine’s warning bell. The alarm isn’t in their nine eyes, nor their inky, wiggly 12 legs or even their menacing-looking tail jutting out from a protective helmet.
The horseshoe crab’s blue blood is used to detect toxins in the medicine. Their blood is hyper-sensitive to dangerous bacteria and traps it.
“The crab’s blood clots around the bacteria, and then there’s other chemistry in that, that will kill that invading bacteria. We don’t take advantage of that part, we take advantage of the clot,” said Allen Burgenson, global subject matter expert for endotoxin detection at Lonza Inc.
Despite all the available science, technology and engineering, the world still depends on nature to make sure medicines are safe to use. The detection process is incredibly simple: Horseshoe crab blood and a sample of the coronavirus vaccine incubate in a test tube for about an hour.
“After that hour is up, you’ll pick up the test tube and you’ll turn it over. If the clot stays at the end of the tube, you’ve got a positive, you’ve got contamination. If the clot falls out and wets your hand, it’s a negative and that’s good,” Burgenson said.
From June through November, horseshoe crabs are caught at night a couple of miles off the Ocean City shoreline. Trucks that are refrigerated to the same temperature as the ocean take the horseshoe crabs to Lonza’s laboratory in Salisbury, where they spend about 24 hours before being released back into the ocean.
Lab technicians slide a needle through a hinge in the horseshoe crab shell into its open circulatory system and the blood flows freely. Three tablespoons of it is collected in glass bottles.
Lab workers spin the blood in a centrifuge to separate the cells. The lab refines the product and sells it as test kits to pharmaceutical companies.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires screening vaccines for toxins. Even trace amounts of bacteria known as endotoxins can be deadly if it enters the bloodstream. Decades before the benefits of horseshoe crab blood was discovered, doctors called vaccination infections “injection fever.”
“(We) can thank the safety of that vaccine to the horseshoe crab that we have right here in Maryland,” Burgenson said.
Four fishing boats docked in West Ocean City are licensed to catch horseshoe crabs for bleeding purposes, of which, Lonza has a biomedical contract with two. Last year, the industry as a whole caught and released 650,000 horseshoe crabs for bleeding.
Approximately 5% of the horseshoe crabs die. How much the blood is worth is proprietary data, but Bloomberg and other business publications put the price as high as $60,000 a gallon.
Maryland’s horseshoe crab is worth more alive than dead. This fact and stringent Maryland and federal regulations help to protect them.
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