Monday, November 23, 2020

It's Complicated: "How the Race for a COVID-19 Vaccine Jeopardizes East Coast Shorebirds"

 From Audubon Magazine, November 20:

Vaccine production requires the blood of horseshoe crabs, whose eggs are a vital food source for several species, including Red Knots. A synthetic replacement for the blood exists, but the United States is stuck in the past. 

In the past few weeks, a couple of updates from the pharmaceutical industry provided some highly anticipated good news about the COVID-19 pandemic. First, on November 9, the drug company Pfizer announced that it had seen exceptional results in early clinical trials of a potential COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccine candidate, which Pfizer developed with the German company BioNTech, has proven effective in 95 percent of trial participants, with no significant safety concerns. And on November 16, Moderna announced that its own vaccine candidate had achieved 94.5 percent efficacy in early trials.

Both vaccines have the potential to be crucial tools for fighting COVID-19, which has so far killed more than a quarter of a million Americans and is poised to kill thousands more with U.S. infection rates currently on the rise. But while they could save millions of human lives, Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines may end up having consequences few people realize; the surge in vaccine production and testing could affect migrating shorebirds, especially the threatened rufa Red Knot. That’s because both the birds and the pharmaceutical companies depend on the same animal: the horseshoe crabs of the Delaware Bay. Horseshoe crab eggs are vital fuel during the Red Knots’ annual 9,000-mile migration from Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America, to the Canadian Arctic every spring. For the drugmakers, horseshoe crab blood is a vital component in vaccine production.

As things currently stand in the United States, producing vaccines and other treatments that need to be injected into the bloodstream requires sticking needles into the hearts of horseshoe crabs and draining them of around a third of their blood, which is the only natural source of limulus amebocyte lysate, or LAL. Pharmaceutical companies use LAL to test their injectables for a bacterial contaminant called endotoxin, which can be deadly if even minuscule quantities make their way into the bloodstream. In a normal year, pharmaceutical companies conduct an estimated 70 million endotoxin tests. 2020, however, is by no means a normal year. “There are so many vaccines and therapies in development all at once for COVID-19,” says Jay Bolden, senior consultant biologist at the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. “I don’t see how it wouldn’t lead to an increase in the need for endotoxin testing.”...