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Horseshoe crabs help keep vaccines safe. Now, they're in big trouble

Pfizer says COVID vaccine is over 90% effective
Pfizer says COVID-19 vaccine trials are 90% effective 07:09

West Sayville, New York — The safety of any new coronavirus vaccine may depend on help from an ancient marine creature. Horseshoe crabs have been helping pharmaceutical companies for decades to keep vaccines free of contaminants.

But now, their own future is in question, CBS New York reports.

"Horseshoe crabs have been on Earth for 445 million years," said John Tanacredi, the director of the Environmental Research and Coastal Oceans Monitoring lab at Molloy College.

They survived the age of the dinosaurs, but will they survive the 21st century?

Fewer and fewer horseshoe crabs are being seen on Long Island beaches.

"Extinction is forever. These animals are on the cusp of being impacted dramatically," Tanacredi told CBS New York Monday.

Tanacredi said horseshoe crabs are in dire straits due to over-harvesting for bait, consumption and loss of habitat.

Of the 115 beaches the program monitors, 75 have seen horseshoe crabs disappear.

They are fascinating creatures that don't harm humans, but do much to help.

Their unique blood is used to make sure IV drugs and vaccines are safe --  vaccines like those being developed to fight COVID-19.

"Horseshoe crab blood is harvested to produce limulus amebocyte lysate, LAL. That is a detecting system for bacterial contamination," said Tanacredi.

Pharmaceutical companies harvest the blood and then return the crabs to the water.

"We have a 450 million-year-old creature that for the last 45 years has improved the safety of medicines for humans and animals," said John Dubczak, the executive director of Charles River Laboratories.

"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," said Tanacredi.

Researchers believe horse shoe crabs have less than a decade left if more isn't done to protect the species that uniquely protects humans.

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