A blue-blooded ally in battling coronavirus
PETER FROST unveils some less well reported ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic
IN PREVIOUS Ramblings I have written about a remarkable creature, the horseshoe crab.
This 10-eyed “living fossil” isn’t actually a crab at all but it is very endangered and becoming more so.
Horseshoe crabs are arthropods. They live in salt and brackish water, primarily in and around shallow coastal seas. The first time I saw them they were climbing mangrove trees in Florida’s everglades.
All mammals, including you and me, have metabolisms based on iron. That is why our blood is red.
Most other animals have red blood like mammals, but horseshoe crabs have bodies based on copper salts, so their blood is blue.
Today that blue blood is so valuable that a pint sells for £10,000. The blood is being used to help scientists research potential coronavirus vaccines.
Private health companies in the race to develop a successful vaccine are milking thousands of horseshoe crabs for their pale blue blood.
The scientists take about a third of each animal’s blood from a vein near the horseshoe crab’s heart to make something called lysate.
Once the blood is taken they are supposed to return the animal to the wild. Even so at least one in three animals dies, and bled females are unlikely to breed for many years.
Less scrupulous hunters and laboratories don’t even bother returning the horseshoe crabs to the wild.
Why bother? It is simpler and cheaper to catch fresh ones. Well over half a million horseshoe crabs have been bled so far.
In 2016, a synthetic alternative to horseshoe-crab lysate was approved as an alternative.
European researchers and a handful of US drug companies began using it, but in June this year US Pharmacopeia, which guides standards for drugs and other products in the US, banned synthetic lysate, demanding that only horseshoe-crab blood could be used.
Now companies everywhere will need to use real horseshoe crab blood if they ever want to sell their vaccine to the US.
This is not just driving the price of blue blood up but is also pushing the horseshoe crab ever-nearer extinction.
It is certainly a difficult call: is the survival of a rare and endangered species more important than finding a coronavirus cure?
We do know from long experience that when we humans seriously interfere with nature we usually get it wrong and live to regret it.
Horseshoe crabs are a unique part of the ecosystem and it might well be that in the future we may face worse threats than the coronavirus.
Then we just might again need the assistance of our blue-blooded ally.
By then, if they have gone forever, it will be much too late.
Keeping our eye on the green ball
World leaders like Donald Trump in the White House and equally right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro are pooh-poohing personal protective equipment (PPE) while millions of us are still trying to keep safe washing our hands and using masks, gloves and antibacterial gels.
Even when Bolsonaro caught the virus he removed his rarely worn mask to show journalists how healthy he looked.
Worldwide, those rich enough to afford them are using and throwing away 200 billion face masks and over 100 billion pairs of gloves every month.
Far too many of those disposable masks, gloves and similar items are ending up in the sea.
Divers and maritime observers are spotting more and more discarded waste floating underwater and causing problems for wildlife.
Conservationists around the world are sounding the alarm over where all these single-use products are ending up, joining the already horrifying day-to-day detritus in our ocean ecosystems.
One horrifying statistic is that there are now more masks than jellyfish in European and Asian coastal waters.
Even before coronavirus, each year eight million tonnes of waste plastic were adding to the estimated 150 million tonnes already circulating in the marine environment.
One study estimates that in the UK alone, if every person used a single-use face mask a day for a year, it would create an additional 66.000 tonnes of contaminated waste along with almost the same amount of plastic packaging.
It would be an ironic disaster if the mask that saves your life goes on to kill a whale, a turtle or indeed any ocean creature.
Of course it isn’t just whales and other lovable and photogenic animals that are at risk.
Today plastic micro-beads are being found in fish being sold in British supermarkets.
It might be that you will soon be consuming microscopic bits of your own coronavirus mask or antiseptic gel bottle — delicious.
Single-use plastic waste is not the only impact the coronavirus is having on the environment.
On the positive side carbon emissions are right down as air and land travel is curtailed. Industrial activity too is much reduced.
One of the main environmental worries is that the pandemic will divert governments’ attention away from green issues.
Already the UN’s climate change conference has been postponed for a year, to November 2021.
Some US cities have paused recycling and parts of Italy and Spain have stopped recycling too.
The quarantine economy has driven more people to shopping online, resulting in greater packaging waste from doorstep deliveries.
How much of the Amazon rainforest ends up making Amazon delivery boxes?
Import and export restrictions and reductions in the availability of cargo transportation mean that much food is being dumped.
As this organic waste decays it will release greenhouse gases — a double whammy.
Unless we keep our eye on the green ball there is a risk of any sudden upsurge in construction and manufacturing being allowed to ignore the previous environmental rules that have taken decades of hard political campaigning and struggle to achieve.
Executions back open for business in the Lone Star State
Donald Trump’s most strident call is to blame China for the coronavirus. Not far behind is his “Open Up America Ra Ra Ra” policy — despite more than six-and-a-half million new US pandemic cases and more than 150,000 US deaths.
There was no need to reopen gun shops of course. Gun-owner Trump and his government classed them as essential right from the start. The gun departments at Walmart, the US’s biggest gun-seller never closed.
It is, of course, every US citizen’s birthright to shoot not only as much of the country’s rich wildlife as they can, but also the occasional bank clerk, annoying neighbour, cheating partner and even the odd president.
Texas is among the US states hardest hit by coronavirus, with 14,500 deaths and more than 650,000 cases, and huge hospitals closed to any new cases.
Despite that, the Lone Star State has reopened an important feature of Texan life.
Death row is open again for executions and in July Billy Joe Wardlow joined the long list of people killed by the Texas state prison authorities.
Texas tops the state league of US executions with 569 lives taken since death sentence reintroduction in 1982.
Wardlow’s execution, like all others in Texas, was by lethal injection.
Ten years ago the poisonous injections were supplied by a small chemical company at the back of a driving school in Acton, west London.
The tiny company supplied death-penalty kits to countries across the globe.
Today Trump insists that all fatal injections are Great American fatal injections.
Each Texas judicial death is attended by the executioner and his assistant, the prison governor and his deputy, up to five witnesses chosen by the prisoner from an approved list, enough heavily armed guards to control those witnesses and finally one or more religious chaplains.
It isn’t clear if there is enough space in the death chamber for adequate social spacing.
Trump decrees that the wearing or otherwise of masks will be at each attendee’s personal discretion.
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