Rumsfeld and the horseshoe crab that could save your life

By Lisa Parsons

"Crab Wars: A Tale of Horseshoe Crabs, Bioterrorism, and Human Health," by William Sargent, 2002, University Press of New England, 124 pages.

There are fewer than six degrees of separation between a horseshoe crab and you.

Marine scientist William Sargent makes this clear in his new book, "Crab Wars: A Tale of Horseshoe Crabs, Bioterrorism, and Human Health." It's a short book, almost a long magazine article.

Horseshoe crabs live in U.S. East Coast waters, including Cape Cod.

(They are, by the way, not crabs.) They pre-date dinosaurs and have changed little in 250 million years. Their primitive immune system makes them medically useful to humans.

A certain extract from horseshoe crab blood, called lysate, is widely used to test drugs and vaccines for bacterial contamination. This is where you come in. Every time you get a shot or receive certain medications, you're benefiting from this medical breakthrough.

Lysate is so valuable that a horseshoe crab is worth $2,500 over its lifetime for the stuff. (One crab can give its blood repeatedly.)
But everyone wants a piece of the horseshoe crab. Doctors and drug companies want them for lysate; fishermen want them for bait; certain birds need their eggs for food. There don't seem to be enough horseshoe crabs to go around.

And-here comes the bioterrorism connection-if we're all going to get vaccinated against smallpox, we're going to want lots of healthy horseshoe crabs around.

William Sargent is worried. Worried that there won't be enough horseshoe crabs and worried about Donald Rumsfeld's history of indiscriminately vaccinating people.

The Rumsfeld history starts in 1976, when a military recruit in New Jersey died from a flu that experts speculated might be the "swine flu" virus of 1918 pandemic fame. As Sargent tells it, Rumsfeld, who was then and is again the nation's secretary of defense, made the imminent "swine flu" a political issue to add some spark to the campaign of President Ford, an interim leader without a cause. At Rumsfeld's urging, the administration would ensure that "every man, woman and child" was vaccinated. Huge amounts of vaccine were produced and distributed quickly.

Some batches were contaminated. This was in the days before lysate. Six hundred people sickened and 52 died. The program was stopped a month after the election.

And nobody got swine flu.

"It was," writes Sargent, "modern medicine's most flagrant miscalculation."

The following year the horseshoe crab lysate test-faster, cheaper, more sensitive-began to replace the rabbit test for ensuring the purity of vaccines.

Sargent points out the similarities between the '76 swine flu scare and our current predicament with regard to smallpox.

"How will the United States protect itself against bioterrorism?" he asks. "The Department of Defense proposes that $343 million be spent to produce forty million new doses of smallpox vaccine."

Sargent is concerned about the possibility of bacterial contamination in vaccines that are rushed to market, and suggests that such contamination might have been behind adverse reactions to the vaccine in the past. "Who was the architect of that ill-fated campaign (in 1976)? Donald Rumsfeld, one of the architects of the present campaign."

But at least this time we've got horseshoe crabs, right?

Right, if the fishermen and the red knot birds don't get them first, if we don't allow our impatience to decimate their population, and if we don't pollute or mishandle them to death.

Sargent explores that tangle of issues succinctly in "Crab Wars," an engrossing little read for the lay scientist, the political junkie, the environmentalist.

William Sargent is the author of "A Year in the Notch: Exploring the Natural History of the White Mountains" (2001), "Shallow Waters: A Year on Cape Cod's Pleasant Bay" (1999), and other books about science and nature. He has taught in Massachusetts, conducted research at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and worked as director of the Baltimore Aquarium.