Lyle resident Adrian Bradford can tell you a lot about how one of the Covid vaccines was made. He grew up around the source used for it.
Bradford was raised on the shores of Delaware Bay, which connect the state of Delaware on one side and New Jersey on the other. “I grew up in New Jersey, where our family farmlands extended through salt marshes to beachfronts of the Delaware Bay,” Bradford recalls. “Onto those specific beaches, only one month of every year, big prehistoric-looking horseshoe crabs crawled out of the water to perform a function. We watched with interest and amusement, but I didn’t know until 2020 they have a blood cell that could protect hundreds of millions of humans.”
The previous presidential administration pressured scientists to create a preventive treatment specifically for this new virus. They turned to a special cell in the blue blood of the horseshoe crab, and using the existing research on this specific cell, a successful vaccine was developed which became the crucial key in perfecting the vaccine.
The horseshoe crab’s blood is a bright shade of blue and has remarkable antibacterial properties that have proved invaluable to the medical industry. The extraction process is a careful one in which scientists do all they can to make sure the animals are unharmed, but they still hope to move to a synthetic option that replicates these original cells so horseshoe crabs won’t be subject to the stress that may come from the practice.
Only horseshoe crabs have a blood-clotting agent known as Limulus Amebocyte Lysate, or LAL, which clots in the presence of certain groups of bacteria. These bacteria are difficult to detect by other means. The FDA requires the use of LAL to test all injectable and intravenous drugs produced in the U.S. The good news is that up to one-third of a horseshoe crab’s blood can be removed without killing the animal.
Although the American horseshoe crab is not considered endangered, it is classified as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. The number of crabs caught is monitored as much as possible. In May of 2021, when Bradford returned to his hometown of Fortescue, New Jersey (where they were hosting a Downe Township Horseshoe Crab Festival), he spoke with two tourists, one claiming to be a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania and the other to be affiliated with the Charles River Lab of South Carolina. One proclaimed that some pharmaceutical companies are paying as much as $60,000 a gallon for the crab’s blue blood. Could this not cause fear of a horseshoe crab gold rush?
Bradford’s childhood home shared the bay’s shorefront property with these crabs during their migration, and he says he was awed by their large size and odd-looking prehistoric appearance. According to the Natural History Museum, they have indeed existed for nearly 450 million years, dating them back to pre-dinosaur. This has led to speculation that such a lengthy period of time could be the reason they were able to develop the total immunity cell that is evident in their blood—a cell that is now uniquely available to create a vaccine, which in turn creates immunity in most humans.
As a boy, he found the crabs to be no threat to humans, as it leaves the sea only to procreate. The crabs are harmless; their spiny tail is not a weapon but used to right themselves if they tip onto their backs. Ocean Conservancy studies have found, but not yet understood, that the female seeks the correct temperature, sand texture, and ph quality in choosing a spot above the high-tide mark. Without no defense against its predators and seeking the nutritional enrichment of her eggs, she burrows and lays hundreds of thousands which are immediately fertilized by a male, who has latched itself to the back of her shell. The hatchlings are on their own to dig their way out and make their way back to sea, hopefully avoiding the watchful eye of many hungry predators.
After his recent visit home, Bradford said, “I have decided to just let nature continue to manage my section of this shoreline and try to greet the horseshoes every year with my grandkids. Two-year-old Oliver joined me this year and got up real close, fascinated with the long spike tail of a female.”
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