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Horseshoe crab blood key to making COVID-19 vaccine, but ecosystem may suffer

Pinellas County

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WFLA) – It’s one of the most unusual animals found on Florida’s shores, but the horseshoe crab could hold the key in the development of a coronavirus vaccine.

The animal could have an impact on the race for a vaccine and it could ultimately impact the environment.

Horseshoes are known for nesting along the shorelines. Scientists said their vital to our ecosystem, but their blood is vital for our medical industry.

“We’re doing all this really fancy modern cutting edge medicine but we have to go back to something like the horseshoe crabs to get the test to validate that this vaccine is safe for people,” said Ari Fustukjian, Senior staff Veterinarian at The Florida Aquarium.

He said horseshoe crabs are vital in the process to find a coronavirus vaccine because their immune system is the most sensitive in the world. He said they use the blood to make sure human and animal vaccines don’t get bacteria in them.

“It’s interesting that they’re so critically important, basically the entire big pharma and development of drugs is dependent on this lovely animal that spends 99 percent of its time down in the mud,” said Fustukjian.

Eron Higgins said their Eckerd College research group has studied horseshoe crabs for six years.

He said they have 10 legs, 10 eyes and they’re not even in the crab family.

“They’re actually closer, more closely related to spiders. Their shell is not like crabs, it’s called chiton, a softer material,” said Higgins.

He said right now about a million horseshoe crabs are harvested every year in the northeast, near Delaware, but medical groups have their eyes on Florida next.

“They’ve been looking down here and that’s one of the reasons we’ve been studying them. They have companies that have permits to harvest down here. They not doing it yet but they have the permits. So we wanted to get a really good idea about the population before starting harvesting,” said Higgins.

Higgins said they’ve been around 350 million years, so many other animals in the water depend on them.

He said if the horseshoe crab population were to decline too much, it could negatively impact the ecosystem.

“I try to encourage people, please be nice to them because they’re very harmless and super important for our system, our whole ecology,” said Higgins.

Horseshoe crabs are completely harmless, said Higgins. He said the tail on the end isn’t it a stinger, it’s actually used as a kickstand to help flip over if they land on their back.

For more information about this topic read more from the FWC or National Geographic.

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